A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Vague University Policies Punish Students For Jokes, 'Obnoxious' Comments, 'Insulting' Phone Calls or Texts

13 of Michigan's public colleges and universities severely or excessively limit freedom of speech, according to legal foundation

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Michigan is home to 13 colleges that severely or excessively limit freedom of speech, legal equality or religious liberty, according to a legal foundation. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) runs an online database listing the "state of liberty" at colleges across the country. Ten of the 13 Michigan colleges received a "red light" rating, meaning they have at least one policy that the group says severely limits free speech. Three colleges received a “yellow light” rating, which means they have excessive limits on expression.

"Public universities have a legal obligation under the First Amendment to uphold a student's right to free speech," said Azhar Majeed, associate director of legal and public advocacy with FIRE. "The fact that most of Michigan's universities and colleges rated have a 'red light' is certainly disappointing."

Oakland University has a telephone policy that restricts students from using the device to “harass, offend or disturb” others, which includes using “obscene, immoral or insulting language over any telephone or other communications device.”

“Oakland received our ‘Speech Code of the Month’ in April because of this overbroad and vague policy,” Majeed said. FIRE, as it has done with many other schools, has asked the university to revise the speech code.

Some university policies deal with the proper use of computers or school networks. When a student attends Central Michigan University, the school says students “are using CMU’s computing and networking facilities" and as a result, are restricted from "using foul or obscene language, posting obnoxious or inappropriate announcements, or making defamatory statements." CMU has a "Bias Incident Response Team" to look into vaguely-defined problems.

"Anytime anyone in the CMU community feels belittled, disrespected, threatened, or unsafe because of who they are, the entire university community is diminished," says the university website. "That's why it's important to report all bias incidents — even those intended as jokes. If you have observed or experienced a bias incident, it should be reported as soon as possible."

Western Michigan University says that students cannot use the school's internet to "post or send material that is contrary to the mission or values of the University."

Lake Superior State University lists "…harmful, vulgar, obscene or otherwise objectionable language or material of any type" as an "unacceptable" use of the school’s technology network.

Another prominent issue has been loosely-defined sexual harassment policies at several of the schools.

Eastern Michigan University has a sexual harassment policy that includes any "…inappropriate sexual or gender-based activities, comments or gestures…" CMU lists sexual harassment as "unwanted sexual attention or communication of any kind."

This "means that virtually any speech relating in any way to gender is subject to punishment if it offends a member of the campus community and EMU officials deem it 'inappropriate'," said Samantha Harris, a lawyer with FIRE,

EMU responded to the group that they can set standards "regardless of whether the conduct rises to the level of that which violates civil or criminal law." 

Michigan Technological University defines sexual harassment as "situations of a sexual nature that makes other uncomfortable."

"Anybody can be affected by sexual harassment," reads the school policy. "Who they specifically are does not matter. What matters is if they feel uncomfortable with the situation."

Vague definitions of general harassment have also gotten some universities a negative rating.

"Of course, no one wants to be harassed sexually or otherwise when they get an education," Majeed said. "But university harassment policies have been used to infringe on free speech rights...The Supreme Court has narrowly defined sexual harassment and most university speech codes violate that standard."

Grand Valley State University "disapproves of and seeks to eliminate discriminatory behavior" that may include jokes and "illustrations that reveal stereotypic and discriminatory attitudes."

Wayne State University has a similar policy, but includes "posting offensive/incriminating photos, blogs, websites or videos."

The University of Michigan–Ann Arbor defines harassment as "unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning or bothersome to an individual.” The school also lists making fun of someone’s accent, “traditional manner of dress” or geographic origin as some examples. At the same time, “sexual or dirty jokes” and “rating others as to sexual activity or performance” can also be a violation.

University of Michigan spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald, said that the first words from the school's faculty handbook are, "Free speech is at the heart of the academic mission."

"The University of Michigan does not impose what [is described as] a 'speech code,' " Fitzgerald said. "Instead, the university prohibits only conduct that would constitute unlawful discrimination or harassment."
 
Fitzgerald quoted U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and Provost Phil Hanlon to further describe the school's policies: "Protecting students' and the faculty's right to pursue lines of inquiry and express ideas without fear of reprisal is fundamental to the University's core missions of research and education. The pursuit of answers, however unpopular, cannot be constricted if we are to retain a place of open and vigorous debate."

The “red light” colleges in the state are Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Lake Superior State University, Macomb Community College, Michigan Technological University, Oakland University, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University.

The “yellow light” colleges are Michigan State University, Northern Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University. 

FIRE is a non-profit legal and educational foundation that works to ensure freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and the sanctity of conscience at America’s colleges and universities.

Requests for comment from Oakland University, Lake Superior State University, Western Michigan University and Central Michigan University were not returned.