Group she supported exposed the checkered free-speech record of Michigan universities
Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for education secretary, has been under heavy criticism by the media for her work promoting school choice and charter schools in Michigan.
In a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, DeVos was asked about a civil liberties group she had donated to known for exposing First Amendment infringements committed by colleges and universities.
“Betsy DeVos is an unabashed supporter of the First Amendment. Period. Regardless if she supports the content of the speech,” Greg McNeilly, a DeVos spokesman said in response to the question of why she has contributed to an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE was started in 1999 to challenge campus speech codes that its founders said were violating students’ First Amendment right to free speech.
But Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is using DeVos’s contributions to FIRE to question her commitment to preventing sexual assaults on college campuses.
In the last few years, FIRE has been a vocal critic of President Obama administration’s approach to handling sexual assault investigations on campuses. Critics such as FIRE say the administration has tried to force universities to investigate reported sexual assaults in ways that may compromise the due process rights of students accused of crimes. The outgoing administration has all but forced institutions to behave in this manner with implicit threats of legal and other consequences.
Casey characterized the nominee’s position in these terms: “Ms. DeVos must fully explain whether she supports the radical view that it should be more difficult for campus sexual assault victims to receive justice.”
Casey’s communications director, John Rizzo, tweeted that FIRE is a “far right” group that’s “determined to roll back the progress we've made on campus sexual assault.”
For many years, FIRE has defended the free speech and due process rights of college students without regard for their party affiliation or ideology. It has represented student activists promoting liberal or left-wing causes on multiple occasions. In one case, FIRE was active in opposing the Catholic University of America for not authorizing a campus chapter of the NAACP, which some students wanted to form.
In addition to its activism, FIRE is known for publishing periodic surveys rating hundreds of universities on their commitment to free speech. In the latest ratings, seven of 13 Michigan state universities received “red light” ratings from FIRE. A red light institution is one that either has at least one policy clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.
Six of the state’s universities received “yellow light” ratings, defined as having “policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech.” No public universities in Michigan were given a “green light” by FIRE.
FIRE also comments on free speech issues across the country, including Michigan, often leading to changes in university policies.
In late 2016, after racially charged fliers were posted on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mark Schlissel, president of the university, said students could tear down posters they did not like, comments that drew scorn from FIRE.
“I can’t legally take down a poster. I think I’d be sued and fired. But you can. And if you don’t feel safe taking down a poster, call my office. I’ll come stand next to you while you take it down. You’ll be plenty safe,” Schlissel said publicly.
“Instead of giving students a bucket of water to erase chalk, Schlissel should give them chalk to respond. Instead of standing by while posters are torn down, Schlissel should stand guard while additional posters are put up,” FIRE said in a statement.
Michigan State University denied a student group funding in 2012 to bring a free-market author to speak on campus because it could not “fund groups with political agendas.” After FIRE sent a letter to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon warning the student group’s First Amendment rights were being violated, the university reversed its decision and funded the speaker.
In 2007, FIRE informed Central Michigan University that its policy banning student groups from discriminating based on “political persuasion” violated students’ rights to freedom of association. CMU later rewrote its policy.