Michigan law would suspend students for suppressing speech

A Michigan state senator recently introduced a bill that would require public institutions to suspend students found responsible for disrupting speech.

Senate Bill 350 is one of two free-speech bills (the other is SB 349) proposed by Republican Sen. Patrick Colbeck, both of which would expand free-speech protections for college student and eliminate so-called “free speech zones.”

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SB 350, though, proffers an additional stipulation that would require all public colleges and universities in the state to adopt a “statement warning that any student who has twice been found responsible for infringing upon the expressive rights of others will be suspended for a minimum of 1 year or expelled.”

Kimberly Buddin-Crawford, policy council at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Michigan Live that while she thinks “the intention behind [the bill] is good,” legislators need “to be very cautious in what [they’re] mandating schools to do and the punishments that [they’re] mandating,” questioning the enforceability of Colbeck’s mandatory suspension requirement.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told Campus Reform that his organization believes that only “modest changes” to the language of the bill are necessary in order to “spell that provision out,” noting that the courts have made clear that such a requirement would be applied to cases in which a student “substantially and materially disrupts” certain events.

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“FIRE does think it’s appropriate for there to be sanctions for students who do cross those legal lines, but we’re not convinced that legislators should decide what those specific sanctions are,” Cohn explained, stressing again that he’d only suggest “modest changes” and praising Colbeck for introducing the legislation.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Casey Mattox seems to disagree, though, pointing out that “universities routinely discriminate against conservative students” and arguing that “giving those administrators new power to punish students is likely to only heighten this problem.”

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“While I sympathize with those who are concerned about a campus culture that shuts out conservative views, that culture is the product of the policies and actions of taxpayer-paid administrators and faculty, and that is where efforts to protect student First Amendment rights will be most productive,” he added.

Other free speech advocates, though, support the existing version of the provision, which conforms closely to the language used in model free speech legislation introduced by the Goldwater Institute in January.

Goldwater Institute Education Director Jonathan Butcher defended the mandatory suspension requirement, telling Campus Reform that universities already “have campus hearings on other issues involving student conduct, so holding a hearing is not a new idea.”

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“And if a student is found guilty of infringing on the expressive rights of others, this is an act that could otherwise involve local authorities if it happened off-campus,” he added. “Our bill is clear that individuals can protest and demonstrate on campus.”

Butcher also pointed out that SB 350 “is meant to protect the accused in such proceedings,” noting that the “due process protections in SB 350 allow for the accused to have notice of a hearing, find representation, present a witness, [and] review charges,” but some of Colbeck’s Senate colleagues have expressed additional concerns about the legislation.

Democrat Sen. Steve Bieda, for instance, is skeptical that such a law is even necessary, suggesting that “another law on the books may actually screw things up” because it would duplicate existing constitutional protections.

“We have a Bill of Rights. We have the First Amendment,” he pointed out. “Why do we need a law? A law is not going to supersede that.”

Cohn, Butcher, and Mattox each disputed Bieda’s reasoning, contending that the First Amendment has done little of late to prevent widespread infringements of student rights by university administrators.

“Schools are not abiding by the First Amendment now despite clear legal precedent for them to do so, so for legislators to insist on it is helpful,” Cohn told Campus Reform.

Butcher offered a similar assessment, telling Campus Reform that “if the provisions and laws dealing with free speech protection were working now, we would be able to rely on such laws to protect free speech in the event of violent protestors or disruptive demonstrations we see on campuses around the country today.”

[RELATED: Colorado legislator seek to outlaw campus ‘free-speech zones’]

“That is, we could expect consequences when someone is injured or a lecture has to be relocated,” he continued. “Or students would have a way to bring complaints to campus officials when they are blocked from handing out flyers on a sidewalk.”

Indeed, Mattox stated that while Bieda “is correct that student free speech should be protected by the First Amendment, the experience of Michigan colleges in the past year demonstrates they are not getting the memo,” offering several examples of how institutions in Michigan alone have failed to protect fundamental individual rights.

“The ADF Center for Academic Freedom has sued Grand Valley State for restrictive speech zones and Kellogg Community College for arresting students distributing the constitution on their own campus,” he noted. “Taxpayers deserve to know that the colleges they are funding and that are producing tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers and voters are not graduating a generation ill-informed about our basic rights.”

[RELATED: Prof: ‘college campuses are not free-speech zones’]

These comments, in fact, seem to get at Colbeck’s primary motivation for introducing the bill, which he described in a press release as a determination to ensure that free speech and intellectual freedom are not “bullied into silence” by unelected university administrators.

“Our colleges and universities need to be areas where intellectual freedom is pervasive, and not limited by campus policies that seek to determine what views or values are better than others,” he commented. “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.”

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