From the Daily: Protect free speech for student protesters

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - 7:14pm

Early in May, Michigan state senators introduced two free speech bills to the Michigan legislature: Senate Bill 349, entitled the “Campus Free Speech Act,” and Senate Bill 350. If Senate Bill 349 passes, any public institution of higher education in the state, will have the authority to restrict peaceful assembly on their campus — as long as the restrictions meet certain requirements for interference. The second bill, Senate Bill 350, adds an amendment to “The State School Aid Act of 1979,” allowing any public institution of higher education in the state, to restrict expressive conduct, including peaceful assembly, protest, speech, distribution of fliers on campuses, signing petitions and holding signs.

These bills would inhibit campus-wide expression and punish students who are accused of infringing upon others’ right to listen to a speaker or accused of disrupting the college’s functions. In order to protect students’ civil liberties, and by extension, the social causes protesters are advocating on behalf of, the Editorial Board urges Michigan residents and students to oppose this imprudent bill.  

Michigan state senator Patrick Colbeck was the primary writer of the bill, along with nine other Republican state senators. In a press release, Colbeck explains that the purpose of the bills is to protect speakers from having their right to speech subverted by student protesters. However, if universities and community colleges carry out these rules, they must realize that their authority has the potential to stifle student activism. Expulsion is not a punishment to be taken lightly; students should not fear the repercussions of assembling peacefully on their campuses — a basic constitutional right. Furthermore, the University needs to be aware of who they are giving a platform to speak and who is hurt as a consequence. Of course, the right to express new ideas and engage in open, intellectual dialogue is crucial to students’ academic growth, but when speakers espouse ideas that dehumanize or demean individuals on the basis of their identities, students should have the right to organize and voice their disagreement.

The Editorial Board has several concerns with the proposed legislation. First, the vague phrasing of the bills and overly broad restrictions on University censorship is troubling. The legislation grants public colleges too much authority to discern what constitutes as an infringement upon speech, allowing colleges to decide for themselves whether students are disrupting the school’s function, and can sanction these students.

The state legislature shouldn’t merely change the wording of the bills to make them more palatable, they should not allow the bills to pass at all. Restrictions on free speech must remain within the limits of the First Amendment, anything more would violate students’ civil liberties. Moreover, as student protests become more prominent — and necessary — throughout the country, it is vital that students, school administrators, universities and community colleges remain vigilant over actions taken by the state and federal government to limit speech. For instance, students at the University have expressed opposition to, and ultimately helped cancel, a debate over the Black Lives Matter Movement. But, these protests did not infringe upon the free speech rights of speakers who protesters were organizing against, and should not, in future cases like this, be punished.

Though nationally there have been instances where protesters have become violent, protests held by students at the University do not warrant the punishment proposed in the bills. Our campus, and our Editorial Board, values the principles of freedom expression — but speech should remain within the constraints of the U.S. Constitution. Speech that incites violence or that classifies as hate speech is not protected by our University policies, and should not be tolerated on our campus, nor on any public college in Michigan. Yet these bills go beyond our campus policies, by limiting speech that not only constitutes as harassment or hate speech, but also punishes speech that infringes upon the rights of individuals to engage or listen to a speaker. Nowhere in the Constitution is the right to listen to a speech classified as freedom of speech. We should not allow the state government to impose additional restrictions on expression and assembly.

The University has clearly expressed that it values free speech. For instance, the University refused to censor bigoted speech when administrators did not erase the anti-Islam chalk messages along the Diag, and has continued to reaffirm its commitment to free speech after racially charged fliers were found in Mason and Haven Hall in September. Addressing these instances when they happen puts the University in a difficult position, as it is clear that the University wants to create an inclusive environment but must protect free speech. Additionally, in an attempt to demonstrate the University's openness to debate and reasonable dialogue, the University allowed controversial conservative figure Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on our campus, despite negative feedback from students.

After instances like these occur on campus, however, administrators must uphold their values of tolerance and inclusivity to protect the protesters right to assemble, by listening to students who feel outraged by the substance of a debate or speech, and who organize to express themselves. Symbolically standing in solidarity with these students will accomplish few tangible goals. Students who find that they must defend themselves against bigoted speech should be given the space to do so. 

Finally, accusations of infringements upon speech against students will create unnecessary costs on taxpayers, with court costs and attorney fees needing to be met by the state government when brought against student protesters. Not only would the implication of the bills be unjust, they would create unnecessary financial burdens on taxpayers — who we hope will refuse to tolerate these laws.

When the state government creates laws that censor students, they are justifying these sanctions by arguing that students are infringing upon speech when they shut down speakers or try to remove offensive class material. However, the Editorial Board believes that this is simply a hypocritical attempt by the state government to restrict the rights of students. We need to safeguard students’ rights to freedom of expression, and freedom from oppressive institutions. The core principles of free thought should be upheld by the University, for the sake of students — not just speakers.