Michigan senator launches new bill concerning university free speech policies

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Carolyn Gearig/Daily

 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - 5:07pm

Two pieces of legislation — aimed at ensuring intellectual debate and free speech are allowed on college campuses — were introduced in the Michigan legislature by state Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R – Canton) on Tuesday.

If implemented, Senate Bills 349 and 350 would require colleges and universities to adopt policies that would allow any speaker invited to campus and practicing legal speech to participate in a debate, lecture or forum.

Illegal speech such as defamation, sexual harassment and threats of violence would continue to be barred.

In a press release, Colbeck explained barring free speech does not depend on whether or not others believe it to be objectionable. He also noted the importance of preventing the beliefs of students on campus from impacting their logical decision-making, a social psychology term called “groupthink.”

Constitutional experts agree that the litmus test for when free speech should be barred has little to do with whether others believe it is objectionable,” he said. “...We do not need a First Amendment to protect against the speech we agree with. Groupthink is the last thing we want to see on our campuses.”

In University of Michigan’s official position on freedom of speech and expression, E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, said opposing viewpoints have the right to be voiced and diverse opinions are valued.

“The University of Michigan strives to create an environment in which diverse opinions can be expressed and heard,” Harper said. “It is a fundamental value of our University that all members of the community and their invited guests have a right to express their views and opinions, regardless of whether others may disagree with those expressions.”

Furthermore, Colbeck also said he believes peaceful spontaneous assembly is an integral part of the First Amendment and SB 350 outlines continued protection for peaceful protest within the limits of the First Amendment.

“Students and faculty are permitted to assemble and engage in spontaneous expressive activity as long as the activity is not unlawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the University, as the First Amendment permits,” Senate Bill 350 states.

Colbeck also said protesters attempting to interrupt free speech with violence should be policed for barring the First Amendment.  

“If campus leaders believe some speech creates a safety concern because of unruly audience members wishing to use violence, they must police those who would break the law in order to stifle free speech, and not punish speakers by taking away their voice,” Colbeck said. “Intellectual freedom on our campuses must not be bullied into silence.”

Public Policy junior Lauren Schandevel, Communications Director of the University’s chapter of College Democrats and a columnist for the Daily, said in an email interview she takes issue with Colbeck’s legislation because she sees it as an attempt to silence protesters.

“Senator Colbeck claims his bill promotes and protects free speech, but he advocates for disciplinary sanctions against students and faculty who participate in ‘violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct’ in response to campus speakers,” Schandevel said. “That sounds a lot like a thinly-veiled attempt to silence protesters, who also happen to be protected under the First Amendment.”

In a February interview, LSA junior Andrew Krieger, president of the University's chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, said he believes the University plays an important role in maintaining free speech, but his peers could work on being open to the ideas of others.

“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.”

Recently, violent protests on the campus of University of California, Berkeley were staged in response to a planned talk from conservative commentator Ann Coulter, and the university canceled her appearance. Last year, The Michigan Review hosted a debate with controversial figures Milo Yiannopoulos, who recently lost a book deal due to his comments on age-of-consent laws, and Julie Bindel, who is labled as transphobic by many feminist advocates. With both banned from several schools in the United Kingdom, many University students took issue with the hosting of the event. 

Harper states in the University’s official position that protesters have the right to oppose the viewpoints of others, but not in such a way that would limit the speaker’s freedom of speech.

“This (freedom of speech) includes the right of protesters to oppose the expression of views or opinions of others, but not in such a way as to limit or prevent the speaker or performer’s freedom of expression,” Harper said.

Colbeck’s office did not respond for interviews with the Daily at the time of publishing.