Editorial: Keep speech free on college campuses
At a time when universities around the country are limiting the open expression of students, often in the name of political correctness, it's encouraging to see lawmakers take a stand for all students' First Amendment rights.
A bill in the Michigan House seeks to safeguard students’ free speech on public college campuses.
The bill would mandate that institutions receiving financial support from the state adopt free speech policies that include specific statements protecting intellectual freedom and free expression on campus.
This should be a given, but the legislation may be necessary to convince some administrators to get on board.
Though Michigan’s constitution allows state-funded universities to operate autonomously, bill sponsor Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, says they go too far when they step on free speech.
“Students are challenging schools over present policies,” says Reilly. “They complain that they are not allowed to use free speech unless they go to a free speech zone, or register to hand out literature or protest. And the schools are not making it clear that they have rights on campus.”
The bill would mandate explicit protection of the freedom to discuss any topic; to invite any speaker to campus; to assemble and engage in lawful expressive activity; and to protest the expressions of others.
“There’s an important tension that exists between the rights of speakers to speak and the rights of protesters to protest them," says Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "The question is, how do you define the line carefully enough to protect both rights?”
Cohn says the bill is on the right track, but could benefit from language that specified the settings where protests were appropriate. As the bill stands now, the right to protest would be protected, but protests that "substantially and materially infringe" on the rights of others to engage in or listen to the protested expression would not be sanctioned.
While protesters should not be allowed to disrupt a lecture in a reserved room, they ought to be able to get loud in the open areas of campus. The bill should be revised to clarify that point.
Not everyone thinks the legislation is helpful. Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, says the First Amendment ought to suffice to protect free speech.
“It’s a solution in search of a problem," he says. "Michigan’s 15 public universities are the epitome in this state of the venues of free speech and free expression — that’s their purpose.”
Yet Reilly is rightly concerned that students are encountering a culture where people are afraid to speak out and have conversations that are sometimes confrontational.
Upholding constitutional free speech rights is a vital aim, especially at a time when some are trying to outlaw speech they don't like -- even off campus.
Look at what’s happening in New York City, where officials have banned the use of the term “illegal alien” or “illegals,” with violators facing a $250,000 fine. That's not likely to hold up in court, but it's symptomatic of how more people think — and these bad habits are often learned on campus.
Without free speech, there is no confrontation, and no hammering of the truth. That's not the environment Michigan college students should face.