From the Summer Daily: Protect free speech and student assembly

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. According to the bill, any forms of assembly or ‘expressive conduct’ can be sanctioned, including peaceful protest, speech, distribution of fliers, petitions and signs. 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 expression.

However, if universities and community colleges abide by these policies, they must realize that their authority, granted by the state government, has the potential to stifle student activism and inhibit campus-wide expression.

According to the writers of SB 350, by peacefully protesting, and potentially disrupting college functions, students are infringing upon others’ right to listen to a speaker. The community college can punish students when they are accused of this infringement. After two accusations, students can be expelled from the University or college. It is the view of the Summer Editorial Board that expulsion is not a punishment to be taken lightly; students should not fear such repercussions of assembling peacefully on their campuses.

In order to protect students’ right to assemble, it is crucial that residents and students voice whatever concerns they have with these bills. Students and protesters have limited institutional power and thus their freedom to peacefully express themselves needs to be safeguarded.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R–Canton) 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.

The Summer Editorial Board has several concerns with legislation. First, the bills do not state what specific forms of peaceful protest, among other forms of expression, can be punished. Additionally, the limits on restrictions of speech, outlined in section 3 of SB 349, are too broad. More specific limits will be needed to ensure institutions will not abuse their authority to restrict student expression.

Nationally there have been instances where protesters have become violent on campus — such acts are not protected by our University of Michigan policies and should not be tolerated on our campus nor on any public college in Michigan.

In other cases, student assembly is simply an exercise of freedom of speech. Many students at the University expressed opposition to a debate over the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters entered the room and halted parts of the discussion. Some viewed the protest as a disruption.

However, free speech does not guarantee your ability to say whatever you can without opposition — it extends to counter speech as well. While such disruptions are not always ideal, they fall within the scope of counter speech.

The right to express new ideas and engage in open, intellectual dialogue is crucial to students’ academic growth. If a speaker poses what many students see as an agenda that demeans their identities, students should have that similar right to organize and voice their disagreement — whatever their political alignment may be.

These proposed bills have the potential to restrict the rights of students. We should 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 everyone.

This piece has been edited for clarity.