In response to a recent upturn in semi-violent protests to controversial figures, Michigan introduced a new bill protecting free speech on college campuses. Called “The Campus Free Speech Act,” the bill serves as a wake-up call to snowflake students who think freedom of speech means freedom from speech.
The law would apply to all the 15 public universities and the 28 community colleges in the state. It requires the schools to impose a one-year suspension or expulsion for students who have been found twice “infringing” on the free speech of others.
“People have converted our fundamental freedom of speech into a freedom from speech,” said Republican Senator Patrick Colbeck, the bill’s main sponsor. “Ultimately, there’s people that are just trying to shut down any discussion of issues that they don’t agree with.”
However, the Michigan Association of State Universities thinks the bill in unnecessary and “duplicative.” Student rights are already protected under the First Amendment, as well as other state statues. Besides, the individual schools should be responsible for governing student behavior—not lawmakers in the state capitol building.
“It clearly violates the university governing boards’ constitutional right to govern their campuses,” the organization’s CEO Dan Hurley said.
Hurley also explained that full expression of free speech could be distracting from the students’ learning process. While a “free marketplace of ideas,” is vitally important to one’s growth in college, so is concentrating on one’s algebra homework and memorizing the intricate bones on the body for an Anatomy and Physiology exam. An assault of political ideas is counterproductive. There is a limit, and there well should be.
Another key provision in the bill is that universities should also not be used as a “bully pulpit,” to indoctrinate students on their own ideals. They should “remain neutral,” on controversial topics in government. This stems from the University of Michigan’s president Mark Schissel who commented at a post-election rally, “Ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some sort of idealized version of a nonexistent yesterday.”
While Schissel certainly should enjoy the freedom of speech, the comments were framed to stifle the discussion of others. This, of course, leads to the weaker point of the bill. Joe Cohn, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group which supports free speech on campus, said while the bill is good, it needs tweaking.
“The current bill doesn’t describe how severe someone’s actions need to be to infringe on someone’s free speech rights,” he said.
What does “infringe” mean? Certainly, it means not engaging in violent protest. It probably means stopping the “disorderly assemblages,” at Michigan State University when Milo Yiannopoulous came to speak late last year. But, does it mean not “booing” a speaker? It seems that silencing a simple heckle would be free speech suppression in itself. This would have to be defined before the full passage of the bill.
Another area the bill tackles are the so-called “free speech zones.” Mandated by federal law, campus free speech zones were intended to protect the rights of organizations to protest yet avoid violent outbursts. But, what they have turned into, are restrictive out-of-the-way areas, about the size a few parking spaces, that students must apply to use in advance.
Students are not allowed to so much as pass out literature or pamphlets outside these zones. Many schools even have limits on how often a student or group can use the zone. Further, since the behavior can be seen as annoying, the tendency of other students is to avoid the area if occupied, rendering the free speech zone completely ineffective. Colbeck’s bill provides that all public areas of the campus are open forums for free speech.
“It’s gone into very scary territory here,” Colbeck said, “and it’s antithetical to the freedoms that are guaranteed in our first amendment.”
Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan was the target of a lawsuit last year. One of its groups, Turning Point USA, a libertarian organization, sued when some of its students were threatened with arrests by campus police. They claim they were simply talking to other students regarding First Amendment rights, but since they were out of the “free speech zone,” it was prohibited.
The lawsuit was settled and the school opened up free speech to all areas of campus, so long as it wasn’t blocking access to campus buildings, or blocking traffic.
Kellogg College, another Michigan school, faced a similar lawsuit when they prohibited a student from passing out the United States Constitution. In January, Young Americans for Liberty filed a lawsuit against the school. The Alliance Defending Freedom assisted with the case. Travis Barham, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, wrote that the free speech policy on campus technically prohibits even individual political conversations anywhere on the college grounds.
“By policy and practice, Kellogg Community College claims the unchecked right to prohibit students from engaging in practically any constitutionally protected expression anywhere on campus unless they first obtain permission from KCC officials,” Barham wrote in the lawsuit. The three students were arrested for seven hours for trespassing. But, in 2015, an LGBT group was allowed the free range to pass out literature. This is the kind of thing Colbeck’s bill aims to stop.
The bill has only been introduced in the Senate, so its future is still uncertain.