Free Speech in the Ivory Tower

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Illustration by Michelle Phillips

 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - 7:13pm

“College students testify: Free speech under assault on campuses” from Fox News, and “War on campus: The escalating battle over college free speech” from CNN. These hysterical headlines fuel the widespread perception that millennial Americans on college campuses are becoming increasingly hostile toward free speech — at the alarm of their parents. Yet what campus activists and student government leaders actually want from their administrators is frequently overlooked as conflicts and media storms escalate. Increasingly, coverage of these conflicts has placed rhetoric over policy, leaving what students actually want out of the debate. While these leaders and activists aren’t the ones shaping final University of Michigan policy, their voices are felt across campus, and will likely shape the coming generation’s perception of the issue. This alarm has also reached Michigan's state legislature. State senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced legislation in May to strengthen free speech policies in public universities and colleges. If passed, the bill would require that public schools to permit all speakers on campus. 

Recent events have certainly given the public reason for alarm. In February, a planned speech at the University of California at Berkeley by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled after large protests turned violent. The alt-right internet personality is famous for harassing a transgender student by name at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, among other provocations. A professor at Middlebury College was injured in March after protesters attacked her for escorting controversial speaker Charles Murray, who has been associated with quasi-social-Darwinist views, as they tried to leave the event. And Michigan State University recently denied a request to host an event of white supremacist Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute — a key organizer of the deadly August white nationalist march in Charlottesville

While these incidents tend to draw the most derision from conservatives, the divide over speech is also generational. Forty percent of millennials believe the government should be able to restrict speech offensive to minorities, while only 27 percent of those ages 35 to 50 and just 24 percent of those between 51 and 69 hold the same view, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found. That this is a generational divide and not simply a political one has implications for the future of the debate. This isn’t an issue that will get lost in the 24-hour news cycle — it is here to stay, particularly for young people.

As such, this debate has increasingly impacted the campus climate. In April of 2016, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg received a hostile reaction from some students at the University’s commencement when he labeled “safe spaces” dangerous because they create a “false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views” in his keynote speech. Last September, a debate at the Michigan League organized by the Michigan Political Union — a nonpartisan student forum for political debate — discussing whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement was “harmful to racial relations in the United States” was disrupted by hundreds of protesters claiming the event trivialized the lives of African American students.

Underlying this contemporary debate is a fundamental conflict: How can universities ensure a welcoming campus environment for all while guaranteeing a free exchange of ideas? If a university's mission is to create an inclusive environment conducive to providing an education for all, how should it approach the expression of free speech that may place students in danger?

More practically, can some forms of speech truly be objectively unacceptable and therefore worthy of restriction on a college campus? If so, who should be making those necessarily objective decisions? University administrators? A sizable portion of a campus’ community?

The University of Michigan, as a public university with the legal obligation as a public institution to protect free speech as described in the First Amendment, has guidelines that state it must do all within its power to protect community members’ or invited speakers’ rights to speak freely and to protect those who wish to listen or communicate with speakers.

Other universities have announced modifications to their policies to deal with changing tides. Texas A&M University announced only recognized student organizations would be able to rent space to host speakers on campus, after a private Texan rented space Spencer in December.

If the University decides that changes to University policy on free speech and expression are warranted given recent events, the views of activists and members of student government will play a major role in their success. These leaders play an important role in determining the campus climate on any given issue, so the views they hold should be accessible as the University navigates these waters.

Social work student Lawrielle West leads protestors in a Black Lives Matter march from the Diag to the Michigan League, where the MPU debate was beig held on September 27, 2016

Social work student Lawrielle West leads protestors in a Black Lives Matter march from the Diag to the Michigan League, where the MPU debate was beig held on September 27, 2016 Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

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To CSG President Anushka Sarkar, an LSA senior, the administration has the right to limit what speakers should be permitted on campus, taking student safety and reception from the University community into account. Sarkar believes some forms of hateful speech do not provide educational purposes for students; specifically singling out white supremacists.

“There's a strong distinction between having John McCain speak at the University of Michigan versus having Richard Spencer speak at the University of Michigan,” she said. “There is constructive benefit of engaging someone who has had a long career in policy and advocacy work in views that oppose, perhaps your own. But having Richard Spencer who is a neo-Nazi, portrayed as someone whose views oppose your own is not going far enough. I do think there is a line between what is acceptable to engage with and what is not."

For Sarkar and many of her peers, the University community at large has a right to determine who gets to speak.

“If there is a small cohort of students on campus who believe that Richard Spencer should be allowed to campus and speak about his views, when those views threaten the very values and safety of students on campus, there are things of higher importance that need to be prioritized, such as the values and safety of students," Sarkar said. "The speakers that have been rejected or shut down by the student body have been in diametric opposition to our university's values and the safety and security of students.”

But some campus activists feel otherwise. LSA senior Grant Strobl, the national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, an organization dedicated to promoting conservative ideals on college campuses across the country, finds the policy to be sufficient in theory, but a failure in practice. Strobl gained national prominence when he protested the University’s decision to allow students to specify pronouns in Wolverine Access by making his own “His Majesty.” From Strobl’s perspective, the University has failed to fully enforce its own guidelines; notably, during the contentious September 2016 MPU Black Lives Matter debate.

"They basically took over the entire event,” Strobl said of protesters. “The University in that situation does have an obligation to ensure that the original event goes as planned, and to remove those protesters; they didn't enforce their own policy."

According to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, the University has a high bar for when to intervene in protests, and has not done so in recent memory. In the case of the Michigan Political Union debate, Fitzgerald said University police were on hand, but did not intervene.

Strobl additionally believes the University must ensure it is protecting all speakers’ rights, entirely independent of what their ideas.

“If the University prides itself on being a limited public forum where students can host speakers, they have to protect speakers and the event in a viewpoint neutral manner," Strobl said. "They just absolutely have to. Otherwise we go down on the slippery slope of just banning people we disagree with.”

Strobl believes the threat of violence in the community should never be grounds for the University to cancel a speaker, claiming protesting a speaker with the intent to cancel an event interferes with the speaker’s right to free speech. University policy states that protesters may not interfere with a speaker’s ability to freely express their thoughts, or an audience's attempt to comprehend them, but are free to protest outside an event.

Strobl’s arguments were echoed by Nicholas Fadanelli, president of LSA Student Government, who also stated that protests should not be used to silence speech some find objectionable.

"Individuals can protest and show their dissatisfaction, their disapproval or their plain condemnation of what a speaker might be saying,” Fadanelli said. “But not to the point where you have a rule of mob situation where events can be shut down kind of on whim."

But Fadanelli cautioned his position, adding that inciting violence — including displaying symbols associated with genocide — shouldn’t necessarily be protected.

Vikrant Garg, a Public Health student and organizer for the Students4Justice activist group, sees the continued toleration of hate as problematic on campus. He believes students should have the right to take matters into their own hand to not tolerate someone they consider hateful.

"There's a huge disconnect I think from a lot of people not understanding that when you tolerate something that is inherently violent to a lot of people in its language, (and) in its history, it’s going to then continue to be violent against those people, and then it's going to escalate that violence,” Garg said. “If what someone is saying is really horrible, then I think that they (students) should be shutting it down. And if in effect that person can no longer be heard by the people that came to listen to them, then good for them."

However, Garg still feels that the University is responsible for condemning hate speech.

"A community makes it known when something isn't necessarily welcome, and a university should follow suit and condemn something when the community has condemned something,” Garg said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, among other civil rights organizations, have raised concerns about universities taking increasingly restrictive policies on free speech. The distinction between “hate speech” and other forms of “allowable” speech being pushed for by some campus voices is a specific point of contention, as there is no concrete definition of “hate speech” in American case law that can legally be curtailed; although such a distinction exists in many European legal systems.

“When we grant the government the power to suppress controversial ideas,” the ACLU website reads, “we are all subject to censorship by the state.”

English journalist Milo Yiannopoulus speaks on issues of feminism and sexism in a debate against freelance journalist Julie Bindel at the Michigan League Ballroom on February 23, 2016

English journalist Milo Yiannopoulus speaks on issues of feminism and sexism in a debate against freelance journalist Julie Bindel at the Michigan League Ballroom on February 23, 2016 Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

If the University, with the power of the state, gets to decide which speech is worth preventing to maintain the safety of students, it will need some framework to make that decision in an accountable and democratic fashion, and in a manner that would not undermine its mission as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

University President Mark Schlissel issued a call to students to consider their roles in addressing hateful speech during his address at New Student Convocation on Friday.

“Will you take the risk to speak out if your classmates are targeted?” Schlissel asked the freshmen. “Will you reject a purposefully hateful speaker on campus by protesting, by instead seeking productive dialogue, or by simply ignoring them?” 

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Among students, the clashing visions of free speech were on full display this past spring when resolutions were introduced in both Central Student Government and LSA Student Government, calling upon each body to take a firm stand in defense of individuals’ rights to express opinions even in the face of adverse reactions from elements of the community. A LSA Student Government resolution — calling upon the LSA Student Government to release a statement in support of free speech on campus — passed unanimously in April. However, after much debate, a similar resolution introduced in CSG failed in a 31-to-5 vote, with two abstentions. 

The author of the resolution, now-University alum Deion Kathawa, felt that the characterization of the resolution as contentious was an insult to the idea of free expression itself, further alleging the resolution faced procedural opposition from many CSG leaders.

“My resolution was smeared as ‘contentious.’ With respect, I resent this characterization,” Kathawa wrote in The Michigan Review, a conservative campus paper. “That there is not broad agreement that free speech ought to be a universally beloved value serves only to show how coarsened our shared political life has become, how politicized even our university — and universities across the country — has become.”

Sarkar defended the result of the CSG vote, arguing the resolution was redundant, as she believed free speech has adequate protections on campus already and that additional reaffirmations were not necessary for advancing the body’s interests, although she opened the door to considering a similar resolution in the future, as contexts change.

"The majority of representatives did not feel that the principles of free speech at UMich were at risk, nor did they feel that the right to freedom of expression was at risk,” Sarkar said.

Fadanelli chalked up the different results primarily to the individuals who introduced the resolutions in both bodies, and their backgrounds on the issue. The resolution that came before LSA Student Government was introduced by sponsors known by the assembly to hold political views across the political spectrum, which helped convince the body of its merits.

So far, the debates on this issue have largely been confined to college campuses, periodically spilling into the national consciousness; drawing media attention and political fire. However, as millennials increasingly enter the workforce and broader society, the footprint of their views on free speech will likely impact the national conversation in more consequential ways.