“Our public universities used to be where we encouraged free speech and debate,” Sen. Colbeck said. “They are now too frequently areas where free speech activities can only take place in special “free speech zones,” written materials include the use of “trigger warnings,” and campus administrators actively allow the bullying of speakers in a manner that has converted our freedom of speech into freedom from speech.”
During the committee hearing, Sen. Colbeck cited two recent instances among many of this type of behavior at Michigan universities. The first instance featured the arrest of a nursing student attending Grand Valley State University. According to testimony, her “offense” was for handing out a pocket Constitution booklet.
The second instance took place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at a debate hosted by the Michigan Political Union. At the debate over one hundred protesters pushed their way into the debate hall and proceeded to shout down the debate for an hour using obscenities, chanting and intimidation, effectively prohibiting the presenters from being able to speak and denying the ability of other attendees to be able to hear.
Administrators and campus police were in attendance at the debate. The administrators asked the student moderator to read a statement at the beginning of the debate notifying attendees that if demonstrators interfered unduly with the freedom of expression of the speakers, they would be removed from the building.
Despite these words, the administrators and campus police took no action at the event. Nor did they take any disciplinary action afterwards or even issue a statement condemning the actions of the protestors. Since then, students at the University of Michigan have been much more cautious about choosing which subjects to debate, effectively shutting down free speech.
In spite of these specific examples, Dan Hurley, representing the universities, stated during the committee hearing that the legislation was a “solution in search of a problem.”
“Clearly, the universities are in denial about the very real infringements of free speech rights on our campuses,” Sen. Colbeck said. “If universities are not willing to defend our constitutional right to free speech, the Legislature must take action to do so.”
Sen. Colbeck’s legislation calls for the adoption of university and college policies that prioritize both the dissemination of knowledge and the importance of peaceful free expression. While illegal speech such as defamation, sexual harassment, and true threats of violence would still not be allowed, clear policies would need to be put in place to ensure free intellectual debate, the ability to voice divergent opinions, and the right to peaceful spontaneous assembly.
Also testifying in support of the legislation was Dr. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who commented that even when universities have policies designed to discipline students who “shout down” visiting speakers that they only selectively enforce them. “The campus free-speech crisis will never be solved until schools discipline students who are purposefully silencing others with these aggressive actions,” said Kurtz. “Universities are clearly failing to enforce free speech on their own.”
Several other organizations, including student groups, also testified and shared stories from Michigan campuses where certain speech was relegated to so-called “free speech zones,” people were threatened with trespass, or students were limited to lawsuits as their only recourse because schools knew most students wouldn’t have the time or money to pursue them in court.
The principal points of contention cited during committee testimony pertained to a perceived immunity on the part of public higher education institutions from legislative oversight of free speech rights on college campuses and whether or not fair enforcement provisions are warranted in the legislation. The legislation now awaits further action by the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sen. Colbeck addresses these points of contention with stakeholders.