Jacques: How to keep campus speech free

Ingrid Jacques, The Detroit News

Charles Murray, political scientist and American Enterprise Institute scholar, spoke (or tried to) in March at Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in Vermont.

A group of conservative students had invited him to speak about his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” which describes growing class divides among whites.

Yet Murray was shouted down by a mob of students, and the event turned violent, with a faculty member getting injured. The opposing students bought rhetoric from the Southern Poverty Law Center that describes Murray as a “white nationalist.”

These incidents are happening with growing frequency and severity around the country. It’s moved beyond college students simply expressing their point of view: They want to block differing views altogether.

Michigan’s colleges and universities have felt the effects, too. Incidents here have gotten the attention of lawmakers, and some are taking action to make sure taxpayer-supported institutions aren’t hampering any student’s free speech rights.

They are right to be concerned. And it’s not just student actions — it’s often university policies that cross a line.

Take what happened last fall at Kellogg Community College. Security officers at the Battle Creek school arrested students handing out pocket-sized Constitutions because they hadn’t received a permit ahead of time. This case is now in federal court over the college’s speech code.

“The reason free speech is at the center of the many issues currently debated by Americans is because it’s under attack,” wrote Ty Hicks, executive vice president at Young Americans for Liberty, in this paper.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, has introduced two bills to bolster free expression on the state’s campuses.

The legislation is based off model language from the Goldwater Institute and other states are pursuing similar bills.

Colbeck is worried that campuses aren’t doing enough to enforce policies regarding student conduct at speeches and other events. And he thinks there should be more repercussions for students who violate school policies. Currently, students who disrupt a guest speaker probably won’t face consequences on their school record.

Some school administrators, as in the case with Kellogg, overly enforce speech policies when they don’t like the message students are spreading. One of the bills would make universities track free speech incidents and how administrators dealt with these situations.

“The universities are in denial,” Colbeck says. “They fall under the same Constitution.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday about the legislation. Those opposed include Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. He called the bills a “solution in search of a problem.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is worried the bills go too far and could chill speech by penalizing protesting students. Colbeck is willing to modify wording to accommodate some of these concerns. That’s a good thing.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, is also on the case and sent letters to Michigan’s 15 university presidents in February asking them to “review and reform policies restricting free speech on their campuses.” All the institutions failed to fully meet First Amendment standards, according to a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Putting administrators on notice seems the better approach for now than passing new laws that could have unintended consequences. But universities must deal with these clear violations of free speech and find a way to balance the rights of all students.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques