News Story

Repressive Speech Codes At Michigan Community Colleges Model PC Universities

Civil liberties group's investigation flashes warning signal

Macomb Community College enforces a speech code that would warrant a “yellow light” rating for being unreasonably restrictive of students' free expression rights in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s “Spotlight” database of schools.

MCC escaped the label only because FIRE, the civil liberties organization that litigates for campus First Amendment rights nationally, only includes four-year institutions in its database. But when Michigan Capitol Confidential asked the organization about the speech codes of several Michigan community colleges, it decided to take a look.

FIRE’s “Spotlight” database ranks how four-year institutions treat students’ rights to free speech and expression. Schools get a “green light” rating for having policies that don’t imperil free speech rights, a “yellow light” when policies are vague or limiting, or a “red light” when policies are substantially restrictive.

MCC requires that individuals and student groups request that their “expressive activity” be scheduled with the dean of students 48 hours prior to the activity. FIRE says this prevents students from constitutionally protected spontaneous demonstrations.

“Requests must be made in writing to the dean during regular business hours at least 48 hours prior to any expressive activity on a form supplied by the College,” MCC’s student handbook says.

“The Dean will review applications and may approve, modify or deny an application,” the policy states, noting the administrator won’t take the content of speech into consideration.

Laura Beltz, a program officer for FIRE, said MCC would receive a “yellow light” rating for its 48-hour notice rule.

“Macomb's policy would earn a ‘yellow light’ rating from FIRE,” she said in an email. “While colleges and universities may put certain ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions on public expression in place in order to protect the institution from disruption, the restrictions here go beyond what is reasonable.”

“Requiring students to request the scheduling of all expressive activities 48 hours in advance prevents students from engaging in spontaneous demonstrations, which are protected under the First Amendment and are oftentimes necessary in order to meaningfully respond to immediate or still-unfolding events,” Beltz said.

Beltz added that MCC could make its policy more specific to large-scale events.

“Instead, the policy should either encourage students to notify the college of planned demonstrations, or should limit the advance approval requirement to those events inherently likely to cause a disruption, such as large-scale events (e.g. where more than 100 people are expected), protests using amplified sound, speaker events, and tabling,” she said.

FIRE’s rating of MCC’s speech policy is meant for reference and not an official rating in their “Spotlight” database.

Macomb Community College did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2004, FIRE flagged MCC for its internet usage policy that prohibited students from sending chain letters, junk mail or spam from the College’s computers or networks, a policy the organization characterized as a “red light.”

In 2011, FIRE reported that MCC ignored two letters from the organization expressing concern over a student civility statement from the college that asked students not to use foul language or create disturbances.

Last month a federal lawsuit was filed against Kellogg Community College alleging that students’ free speech and due process rights were violated after they were arrested and jailed for refusing to stop handing out U.S. Constitutions on campus.

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.