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Green light: Michigan Tech earns top free speech rating in new FIRE report

Report from free expression group examines free speech on the Michigan college campus

Michigan Technological University is the only college in Michigan to earn a green-light rating for its free speech policies, according to a new study by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“Michigan Technological University is committed to maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas, individual differences, and free speech,” the university said in a statement provided to Michigan Capitol Confidential.

Only 58 schools nationwide have earned a green-light rating, which is given to institutions whose policies nominally protect free speech. FIRE rates each institution on several categories. If a school has a yellow rating in most categories but a red rating in one, its institutional rating will be red.

“This report makes clear that there are significant steps nearly every Michigan institution can and should take to improve the state of free speech on their campus,” FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff told CapCon. “We invite them to work with us and lead the way in reforming their policies.”

“A green light rating does not necessarily indicate that a school actively supports free expression in practice; it simply means that the school’s written policies do not pose a serious threat to free speech,” FIRE said in “State of the Speech Codes: Michigan.”

The report evaluated free speech on 26 Michigan campuses, giving each a rating of red, yellow, or green. Most of the campuses were public institutions, but nine of the state’s private schools were included as well. Institutions in the latter group could also receive a warning, indicating that they explicitly subordinate free speech to other values.

Michigan Technological University uses specific language in its Student Code of Community Conduct that protects against arbitrary application or administrative abuse.

For example, sexual harassment is defined as “Conduct on the basis of sex that is unwelcomed and determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.”

FIRE reports that harassment policies contain the most common type of free speech violation, as many schools have overly broad definitions. Of the schools reviewed in Michigan, 77% have a yellow-light harassment policy, and another 11.5% have a red-light harassment policy.

Michigan Technological University also received green lights for its policies on posting and distributing materials, protests and demonstrations, and bullying.

To increase the number of green-light schools in Michigan, FIRE encourages colleges and universities to model their speech policies after the Chicago Statement, published in 2015.

The statement reads:

“Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn . . . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Over 80 institutions nationwide have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Statement or a similar policy. Michigan State University is the only school to have done so in Michigan.

FIRE identified other steps schools can take to increase free speech, including:
• Revising restrictive speech codes to comply with the First Amendment
• Teaching free speech from the beginning, using freshmen orientation and first-year programming
• Conducting annual surveys of the school community to understand attitudes toward free expression, and to gather opinions of the campus climate for debate, discussion, and dissent
• Defending the free-speech rights of students and faculty when controversies arise, and resisting calls for censorship.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.