News Story

Red Light: Seven Michigan colleges substantially restrict free speech

FIRE report evaluates policies on harassment, internet use and postings

A recent report on academic free speech gives seven Michigan colleges a red-light rating for their written policies covering student conduct.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression evaluated 26 colleges and universities in Michigan for the report “State of the Speech Codes: Michigan,” published in March. Michigan Capitol Confidential has written about it before. The schools were given speech code ratings of red light, yellow light, green light, or a warning.

Of the schools surveyed, over a quarter — about 27% — earn a red light. This is higher than the percentage found in the neighboring states of Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. Of the colleges in those states, about 18% earn a red-light rating.

According to the report, “A red light institution maintains at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or bars public access to its speech related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.”

The red-light schools in Michigan include Grand Rapids Community College, Lake Superior State University, Muskegon Community College, Oakland University and Western Michigan University. As public institutions, they are bound by the First Amendment to uphold free speech.

Two private schools also received this rating, Aquinas College and Davenport University.

FIRE gave Davenport University a red light for its rules about sexual misconduct, as well as its rules about protests and demonstrations. Davenport defended its policies, saying they stave off “acts of aggression that may inflict harm.”

“At Davenport University, we fully support freedom of speech and encourage our students to participate in healthy debates, protests, and demonstrations,” Amy Miller, a spokeswoman for Davenport University, said in an email to CapCon. “What this report fails to recognize, is that as a university community, we also have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment for our students. Our policies ensure that our students are able to express their beliefs, with respect, and avoid acts of aggression that may inflict harm on others in our community.”

The report found that red-light schools had overly broad harassment policies.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education that peer harassment is not mere expression. Instead, the court said, it is conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

Many schools do not rise to the rigor of this definition.

Grand Rapids Community College defines harassment as “unwelcome, unwanted conduct related to a protected status,” including “written, verbal, non-verbal, and physical contact.” This definition encompasses anything from a sarcastic joke to truly dangerous behavior.

“We disagree with the report’s finding. GRCC recognizes and celebrates free speech,” David Murray, a spokesman for Grand Rapids Community College, said in an email to CapCon. “We also strive to create a campus where all of our students feel welcomed and comfortable.”

Aside from policies on harassment, policies covering the use of information technology are responsible for the most red-light ratings in the FIRE report.

Aquinas College’s Acceptable Use Policy prohibits “Displaying, sending, or creating links to offensive materials.”

FIRE criticizes Aquinas College’s policy as subjective. “A ban on ‘offensive’ speech is about as broad as a policy can get and, without defining the term, provides an administrator carte blanche to target any expression they personally deem out of bounds,” the report says.

Aquinas College did not respond to requests for comment.

FIRE also identifies policies that impose prior restraints on speech.

Lake Superior State University requires advance approval from the Campus Life Office before anyone posts materials on campus. If an administrator subjectively determines the content of the posting to be “offensive, sexist, vulgar,” or “suggestive,” that person can forbid its posting.

FIRE sees a problem there, with a school subjecting bulletin board materials to prior restraint.

“Requiring that postings adhere to a certain viewpoint is entirely inconsistent with fundamental First Amendment standards. The policy should be revised to guarantee reasonable space indoors and outdoors for non commercial postings, and to only restrict postings that contain unlawful or otherwise unprotected speech,” the FIRE report says.

Lake Superior State University and Muskegon Community College did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.

Oakland University and Western Michigan University told CapCon that they are reviewing their policies to ensure they comply with the First Amendment, and that they are dedicated to upholding free speech.

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.