On April 9, legislators introduced two bills into the Michigan House of Representatives that could impact free speech on college campuses.
The first of the two bills, called the “Campus Free Speech Act,” could affect the number of public areas for free speech. If a demonstration or exercise goes against the four justifiable reasons to limit free speech, which are demonstrators who are deemed a public threat, other platforms for expression, assembly and distribution of literature can still occur and the campus has no free speech zones. If all of these criteria are met, public universities will have the right to intervene.
Currently, the University of Michigan is not legally allowed to ban speakers who use “hate speech” from their facilities unless they pose a threat to the community. In February, the University concluded that housing staff are not allowed to remove hate speech from student doors.
Ken Kollman, a professor of political science, is familiar with constitutional law and believes it’s best for free speech to be uninhibited until it becomes threatening.
“I think like most faculty I’m generally in favor of free speech unless it’s dangerous and incites violence,” Kollman said. “When possible, when there’s no threat to the people or the public order, then it’s better to allow people to speak on campuses.”
The second bill, the “College Campus Intellectual and Expressive Freedom Act,” provides standards to ensure protections for free speech, with nine different statements with which universities would have to update their policies. For instance, anyone who is brought in by an organization or faculty member would be allowed to speak.
This would allow controversial figures — such as conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who spoke at the University in March — to visit campus with fewer obstacles.
Vidhya Aravind, School of Information graduate student, worked on the #StopSpencer campaign when white nationalist Richard Spencer attempted to visit the University last year. Aravind said she finds the bills ridiculous and believes they would only allow for more hate speech on campus.
Aravind had invited Alice Walker, an American novelist and activist, to speak on campus back in 2013, but her visit was canceled due to her involvement with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led campaign seeking “justice in Israel.”
“The University does not give platforms to marginalized view points,” Aravind said. “It doesn’t give platforms in particular to Palestinian students and the University does give an ear to conservative white students far more regularly.”
Aravind said she finds the second bill in particular extremely ineffective and ignorant of the real reason behind student protests.
“Part of the point of student protests is to be disruptive,” Aravind said. “When we protest we’re drawing attention to things that people are otherwise ignoring and typically that’s after trying to fight for change in other avenues.”
Ultimately, Aravind said she doesn’t think the bills will be effective and would not be surprised if the bills did not make it past the governor’s desk.
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Mich., told The Daily in a previous interview on April 3 that members of the House are concerned with outside organizations using public universities to share their hate.
“I think at least (for) Democratic politicians, it’s definitely been something that’s high on the radar and that people are aware of,” Rabhi said. “Especially for folks who represent campuses, because a lot of these hate groups are coming to university campuses to spread their hateful messages.”
Rabhi told The Daily that he personally is involved in crafting civil rights legislation that would fight hate speech, as well as the hate organizations themselves.
Rabhi is worried, however, that some representatives are protecting hate speech by filing it under free speech.
“Some of the negative legislation coming up, it generally is under the guise of free speech,” Rabhi said. “So often times people who are wanting to support and defend these organizations like the American Freedom Law Center and others are doing it with the guise of free speech and saying that universities and other organizations denying the opportunity for hate speech to occur is a violation of free speech.”
LSA sophomore Dylan Berger, president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans and a columnist for The Daily, said he is pleased the discussion of free speech is being brought up. He said different ideals should be expressed on campuses.
“All students at U of M, regardless of ideology, must be free to express their views on campus to maintain our thriving marketplace of ideas,” Berger wrote in an email interview. “With that said, we have to give universities leeway to combat hate speech on campus that’s not protected by the 1st Amendment. This sensible balance will ensure that all students have a voice in campus dialogue.”
A representative from the University’s chapter of College Democrats declined to comment because they did not feel they knew enough about the bills.