University tackles free speech issues

Monday, February 13, 2017 - 3:41pm


Design by Michelle Phillips


In the last year there have been several instances of hate speech and targeted verbal attacks against different minority groups on the University of Michigan campus. However, the line between hate speech and free speech remains blurred for the University to interpret in each individual case, as the balance between maintaining free speech and a safe environment for students continually remains a precarious one.

As a public institution, the University must strictly adhere to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech it guarantees. The University codified its commitment to free speech and a safe campus in its UM Standard Practice Guide, as of the many policies in the SPG, one is dedicated solely to 601.01, the “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression.”

The Civil Liberties Board of the University’s Senate Assembly proposed a set of guidelines to be adopted by the University.

Prefacing the policies is the goal that, by representing and allowing for the entire spectrum of opinions within the University community, the staff can create an open forum for diverse opinions. The guidelines of 601.01 are committed to the exchange of opinions to encourage learning.

“Expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance, not only for those who espouse a cause or position and then defend it, but also for those who hear and pass judgment on that defense,” the policy reads. “The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, or in any other way detestable cannot be grounds for its suppression.”

Law student Erin Pamukcu, president of the University’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, believes the First Amendment and free speech are foundations not only in the study of law, but the U.S. democratic system.

“It’s the Amendment that ensures the will of the people can always be heard and will always be heard,” Pamukcu said. “It was important when America was founded, and is just as important today, especially because the ways that we now communicate are continually changing. The law has to keep changing on how it interprets speech, and in what capacity — does it extend to social media, what I say to people when I’m working? It’s an amendment that will continue to be important and its interpretation will continue to evolve.”

The SPG also created policies directed specifically against “Discrimination and Harassment.” This in-depth policy stance includes definitions of the terms and the appropriate responses to and procedures to follow in these instances, in addition to the Regents’ Bylaw 14.06 and the Nondiscrimination Policy Notice already created to target these issues.

The policy clearly states the University is committed to maintaining an academic and work environment free of discrimination and harassment.

“The University has a compelling interest in assuring an environment in which learning and productive work thrives,” the policy reads. “At the same time, the University has an equally compelling interest in protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom and in preserving the widest possible dialogue within its instructional and research settings.”

Pamukcu believes there is a distinction between hate speech and free speech, and the University has the discretion to decide what classifies as hate speech and when the University has cause to intervene, especially given the current divisive political climate.

“Hate speech is one of those things that is recognizable, you can use common sense,” Pamukcu said. “You can see by the way they act, the language they use, the context they say it in — those are all important parts about deciding whether someone is exercising their own right to free speech or they’re using their speech to target an individual or cause harm to an individual in the way that hate speech does.”

For Philosophy Prof. Daniel Jacobson, however, freedom of speech stands as a prerequisite to knowledge, and as such, people should be able to defend their views against all arguments, whether or not some would consider it to be “hate speech.”

“There isn’t even a clear meaning to the phrase ‘hate speech,’ which is one good reason not to use the phrase, let alone to use it to propose restrictions on speech,” Jacobson wrote in an email interview. “But the law is clear: Hate speech (including false, immoral, even harmful speech) is protected by the Constitution. That is a good thing, because if hate speech could be suppressed, then, inevitably, unpopular moral and political opinions would be labeled as hate speech.”

The aforementioned guarantee of free speech and the importance of diverse opinions was the University’s rationale in allowing The Michigan Review to utilize University space to host two contentious figures. Early in the primaries of the 2016 presidential campaign, Milo Yiannopoulos debated against Julie Bindel in the Michigan League in February 2016.

Both figures are banned from multiple universities in the United Kingdom because of their controversial views — Yiannopoulos for his opinion that feminists invent fake problems specifically regarding rape and sexual assault, and Bindel for her opinions of modern feminists and the transgender community. Most recently, Yiannopoulos was slated to speak at the University of California-Berkeley, but after violent protests from the student body, the university cancelled the event.

Many students expressed discontent with the hosting of this event, but University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote to the Daily in an email at the time of the event that the University allowed for participation by the two aforementioned participants. The University is committed to allowing freedom of speech and opinions for all students and outside guests, referencing the SPG.

LSA junior Andrew Krieger, president of the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a non-partisan libertarian group on campus, believes the University’s role in maintaining free speech and censoring hate speech is important, but his peers could work on being open to others’ ideologies.

“So we believe that free speech allows for you to challenge your ideas and to change the ideas of others,” Krieger said. “As far the University censoring those ideologies, I think that makes racism worse in that it solidifies their convictions and doesn’t allow for them to hear the other side.”

For LSA junior Emily Kaufman, who identifies as a transwoman, Yiannopoulos coming to campus was a point of contention, as in her opinion, he represents hate speech rather than exercising his right to free speech.

“I went to the event, and it was the most uncomfortable I’ve probably ever been in my life,” Kaufman said. “It was a lot of white men from out of town. The kind of people that look like they’d beat up a trans girl like me … The misrepresentation of feminism and having all these people from out of town, it wasn’t University of Michigan students having a productive debate, which could have been useful.”

Krieger said Young Americans for Liberty does not shy away from bringing in controversial speakers such as Yiannopoulos because it is incredibly beneficial to have open dialogues and listen to the viewpoints of those with different political ideologies than one’s own.

“Obviously, we don’t like defamation, flat-out lies, threats — none of that is acceptable under the Constitution,” Krieger said. “Unfortunately, the only way you’re going to convince people with racial ideologies is to have discussions with them, and that is an issue people don’t like to hear and people don’t really want to try. For a lot of libertarians, free speech is the only way to convince people otherwise … I don’t like Milo, but it’s sad that people aren’t able to come to a campus for a fear of their lives.”

Jack Bernard, associate general counsel at the University, and Sarah Daniels, associate dean of students, spoke about the University’s role as a public institution and the First Amendment during a Central Student Government meeting in December.

Though Bernard and Daniels did not specify any incidents, their presentation alluded to the anti-Islam and politically charged messages that have been chalked on the Diag, including statements such as “Stop Islam” and “Trump 2016.” The University did not remove the chalk, and students predominately Muslim, eventually washed off the writing.

One student who helped wash off the chalk messages, Rackham student Banen Al-Sheemary, said at the time she was frustrated with the University's lack of action in response to the chalk drawings beyond an email from University President Mark Schlissel promoting unity.

“It’s irresponsible of the administration that we are actually out here with buckets of water and napkins to clean off these hateful messages and the administration isn’t taking care of it,” Al-Sheemary said at the time. “And not only is the administration not taking care of it, they are putting us through a really difficult process. That perpetuates these really racist and hateful stereotypes that turn into violence and turn into students of color feeling unsafe on campus.”

Bernard explained the chalk writings on the Diag could not be interfered with by the University if they were not threats of violence or other versions of unprotected speech, and Daniels added the University cannot stop people from speaking. Both Bernard and Daniels agreed the best ways to counteract speech was more speech.

Art & Design senior Keysha Wall, member of the University chapter of BAMN — the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary— took issue with the University’s representatives during the CSG meeting, stating the chalk drawing incidents were representative of a threat toward Muslim students.

“You cannot debate fascism,” Wall said. “You cannot have a discussion with fascism. You have to shut that down.”

However, the University was prompted to respond and announce its intention to restrict the type of speech on alt-right, white supremacist posters found around campus on multiple occasions during the weeks leading up to the contentious 2016 presidential election. The posters were primarily anti-Black and anti-Islam, earlier posters advised white women not to become romantically involved with Black men. After many student protests following the discovery of these posters, Schlissel and the University released a statement pertaining to the racially charged poster.

“Messages of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination have no place at the University of Michigan,” the statement read. “While we continue to defend any individual’s right to free speech on our campus, these types of attacks directed toward any individual or group, based on a belief or characteristic, are inconsistent with the university’s values of respect, civility and equality. We also have a responsibility to create a learning environment that is free of harassment.”

The University also stated they could not remove the posters promoting white supremacy because they were posted in public posting spaces.

“Consistent with our policy for posting, whenever they are on buildings, we can remove them,” said former University Provost Martha Pollack during the Senate Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Affairs meeting. “If they are on kiosks, they are protected by free speech, as they should be. Not only do we have a constitutional obligation to allow all speech no matter how heinous, but if you’re going to stand by the First Amendment, you’re going to stand by the First Amendment. But what you have to do then is loudly make known your abhorrence of this.”

Jacobson thinks the University intervening on free speech is an illegal act because the University is a public institution.

“It is fine to have certain spaces where people are ‘safe’ from hearing opinions that offend them,” Jacobson said. “But the idea that the University as a whole should be a safe space — that it should compel people not to express offensive opinions — is as misguided as it is impossible … And it is impossible because everything offends somebody.”

Following the many protests and University responses after the 2016 election, LSA sophomore Amanda Delekta created a petition, #NotMyCampus, where she stated she felt she faced bigotry for holding conservative views, and that the University administration did not foster conversations that were respectful of all ideologies.

“I penned #NotMyCampus after being frustrated at the University of Michigan's seemingly biased response to the 2016 election results,” Delekta wrote in an email interview. “The University is a school and its purpose is to educate, but instead of fostering an open dialog (sic) professors and administrators highlighted only one viewpoint which validated that ideology over that of others which I found to create a divisive campus climate and create a stigma among students of us vs. them.”

Jacobson noted the disparity between the progressive and conservative ideologies of faculty, favoring the former, is problematic because it makes students with unpopular political opinions comfortable with expressing themselves.

“Many fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have become so politicized that scholars cannot succeed unless they hew to a leftist party line,” Jacobson wrote. “Students are subjected to political indoctrination even in courses that are not about politics. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the situation is that, despite its unquenchable thirst for ‘diversity,’ the University does not really value intellectual and political diversity.”

However, Delekta wrote she believes freedom of speech granted to students covers all types of speech, but requires a great responsibility.

“With this freedom comes great responsibility to use it for good, to be critical, but to also be compassionate,” Delekta wrote. “I believe hate speech is speech with ill intent — with no productive purpose beyond causing another harm. That being said, regardless of how insidious and horrible speech may be it is protected by the Constitution. I in no means think hate speech is right, or legitimate but it is legal.”