Campus free speech bill passes Michigan House Oversight Committee vote

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 3:41pm

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Design by Sherry Chen

Two bills that could affect free speech on campus passed in the Michigan House of Representatives’ House Oversight Committee on Sept. 5. The bills aim to regulate the extent to which a college or university can implement policies relating to the free speech of students and staff.  

The two pieces of legislation were sponsored by state Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland, and come almost a year after white nationalist Richard Spencer came to East Lansing to speak at Michigan State University and was met with protesters, where two dozen people were arrested. The first bill, titled “The Campus Free Speech Act,” defines the circumstances under which a public college or university is permitted to limit “expressive conduct” on campus and details the type of legal action students or staff can take when the act is violated. 

The second bill, “The College Campus Intellectual and Expressive Freedom Act,” requires each college or university to create a policy on free speech in accordance with state-wide standards while also making the policy transparent and understood by both students and staff members. The legislation clarifies what form of protest is allowed and would make it easier for controversial figures and speakers to visit campus — including Spencer and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who came to speak at the University of Michigan in March.

LSA senior Kate Westa, former vice chair of the University’s chapter of conservative organization Young America’s Foundation and current co-president of political organization WeListen, expressed support for the bill and argued public institutions of higher education should not have power over the views expressed on their campuses.

“A public university should not be in the business of deciding which of their students get to host speakers or speak their minds,” Westa said. “It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that our rights are protected, and if the First Amendment is being trampled on or amended by speech codes or unfair treatment, then it is absolutely within their purview to stop that from happening.”

LSA sophomore Sam Burnstein, a founding member of Michigan Political Consulting and elected representative for LSA Student Government, said he was appreciative of the freedom of speech available on campus.

“The campus climate on free speech reflects our school’s diversity — racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, etc. — though it often struggles to incorporate diversity of thought,” Burnstein said. “Ann Arbor is a liberal, progressive college town, so it lends itself well to including those voices, but it struggles to incorporate ideas which go against that grain.”

Burnstein reflected on when Richard Spencer tried to book space on the University’s campus in 2017, resulting in widespread student outcry and protests.

“He threatened to sue U-M if they were to bar him from campus,” Burnstein said. “I don't think blocking a speaker from campus is effective. I firmly believe the only way to truly eradicate the ideas he espouses is with better ideas.”

\University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald praised the University’s current free speech policies in an email to The Daily.

“Free speech is a bedrock principle at the University of Michigan,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The university has had a strong freedom of speech policy in place for decades that often is used as a model for policies at other universities.” 

The University’s freedom of speech policy is detailed in the U-M Standard Practice Guide Policies page under “Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression.” The page asserts the University values different points of view and that the rights of speakers and protesters at events should be protected. At the same time, however, the right to free speech does not protect “undue interference” in which a protester disrupts an event or prevents a speaker from expressing their viewpoint, though the policy makes it clear the interference has to be egregious and prolonged in order to be deemed undue.   

“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 SPG reads. “The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, or in any other way detestable cannot be grounds for its suppression.”

In a statement released in April, Reilly testified before the House Oversight Committee to explain the legal basis for the creation of these bills. 

“The state’s public colleges and universities have the responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights of students and the community on campus grounds,” Reilly said. “Right now, students at multiple universities live under speech policies that infringe on their rights to free speech and assembly. Due to some schools’ ongoing unwillingness to ensure their rights, the legislature must do so.”

That same day in April, state Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown., issued a statement in defense of the current freedom of speech policies on public college campuses while criticizing the bills for what he described as overreach.

“All of Michigan’s colleges — both in policy and in practice — already respect and protect the rights of all to engage in free speech, but they do so with the simultaneous obligation to guarantee the safety and security of those who attend their institutions,” Camilleri said. “This legislation would tie the hands of college officials by creating a one-size-fits-all approach at the expense of student safety. Our Constitution already protects free speech on and off college campuses. These bills are unnecessary and negligent as they not only seek to fix a system that is not broken, they invite hate speech and potential violence onto our college campuses.”

Fitzgerald explained the University would not comment on the bills at the moment.

“We do not have anything to add regarding the proposed legislation, but we will continue (to) watch closely as (these) bills move forward through the legislative process,” Fitzgerald said.

Michigan is not the only state in which legislatures are pursuing free speech bills. Several other states, including Illinois, South Carolina and New Jersey are considering pieces of legislation that would influence the way in which freedom of speech is handled on college or university campuses.

Correction: The graphic for this article has been updated to reflect the inclusion of the Upper Peninsula in the state of Michigan.