News Story

Warning: Free association above free speech

Five private schools receive warning rating from FIRE

Five Michigan colleges received warnings in a recent report from a campus free speech watchdog. 

The warnings came in a study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that gave red, yellow and green ratings top the free speech policies at 26 Michigan college and university campuses. The rating of "Warning" is applied to schools that do not clearly make free expression a priority over other values.

One school, however, suggests that the warning label is being broadly applied to religious schools. 

“FIRE believes that free speech is not only a moral imperative, but an essential element of a college education,” FIRE wrote in its March report State of the Speech Codes: Michigan. “However, private universities, as private associations, possess their own right to free association, which allows them to prioritize other values above the right to free speech if they wish to do so. Therefore, when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE gives it a Warning rating in order to warn prospective students and faculty members of this fact.”

Calvin Theological Seminary, Calvin University, Cornerstone University, Grace Christian University, and Kuyper College received the warning rating.

“We do have principles, outlined in our employee and student handbooks, that we expect people to adhere to, and we ask that people’s speech be consistent with those principles. That said, we have an atmosphere of academic freedom and free speech. We are a warm, open, friendly place for students and staff,” a statement provided to CapCon by Cornerstone University said.

Matt Kucinski, a spokesman for Calvin University, said he was surprised by the rating, as the university’s history and policies demonstrate the that students, faculty, and staff value free expression.

“When I review the list of schools in Michigan included in this report, I see that all faith-based institutions seem to have been given either a red, yellow, or warning rating. This seems a bit too convenient. Perhaps this could be because faculty at these institutions likely are needing to balance confessional commitments and academic freedom,” Kucinski said in an email. “At Calvin, we feel that these two values, confessional commitment and academic freedom, are interdependent and contribute to a rich learning environment that provides our faculty the invitation to teach, research, and pursue scholarship meant to deepen our understanding of God’s world.”

Kucinski said that a list of frequently asked questions outlining Calvin University’s free speech policies and the school’s documents on confessional commitment and academic freedom are available to both students and the public.

Many private institutions view and advertise themselves as strongholds of free expression. When held to First Amendment standards, over 90% of the 475 plus schools that FIRE rates across the nation received a yellow or red light in the Spotlight database.

According to the report, only 1.5% of schools nationwide earn a warning rating, but of schools reviewed in Michigan, 19.2% received this rating. When only private institutions are considered, this number jumps to 55.6%.

“The Spotlight database contains far fewer private institutions than public. As a result, it’s unclear whether Michigan’s private schools earn warning ratings at a higher rate than other states or if the database simply lacks many of the small private institutions nationwide that may be more likely to earn those ratings,” the report states. “Regardless, while these Michigan institutions may be within their rights to take this approach, these Warning ratings exist for a reason: Students should have no expectation that free speech or expression is welcome at over half of Michigan’s reviewed private schools.”

Calvin Theological Seminary, Grace Christian University, and Kuyper College did not respond to requests for comment.

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.