NAS Statement on the Michigan Campus Free Speech Act

National Association of Scholars

Michigan is one of many states currently debating how to respond to the crisis of free speech on campus.  The Michigan legislature has responded by bringing two bills under consideration: SB 349 and SB 350. 

The National Association of Scholars endorses both bills and urges the Michigan Senate to pass them.  Here’s why.

Shout Downs

That crisis of free speech on campus is most visible in incidents in which student mobs have shouted down invited speakers. The most widely discussed cases in 2017 were the riots at UC-Berkeley that prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on February 1; the fracas at Middlebury College on March 2, where Charles Murray was prevented from giving a lecture and Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger was injured; and the demonstration at Claremont-McKenna College on April 6, where a mob prevented Heather Mac Donald from speaking.

Altogether, there were ten such shout-downs during the Spring semester of 2017.  By the beginning of November, there had been nineteen more.  One of the most eye-catching of the fall semester was the September 27 shout-down of Claire Gastanage, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, when she tried to speak at the College of William and Mary. A student affiliate of Black Lives Matter decided that “liberalism is white supremacy,” and made sure that one true-blue liberal would not be heard.

Michigan has been spared the worst of this, but not all of it.  When Charles Murray tried to speak at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan on October 11, protestors disrupted the event but failed to end it. 

Underlying Attitudes

Disrupting talks by invited speakers, however, is the tip of the iceberg of the free speech crisis. What lies below the waterline is the disaffection of large numbers of students and substantial numbers of faculty members with the whole idea of the university as a haven for the free expression of ideas.  A Brookings Institution study released in September (and disputed by some) found a majority of students (41 percent) rejecting the idea that the First Amendment protects “hate speech.”  Only 39 percent correctly said the First Amendment does protect hate speech.  Moreover 19 percent of the poll’s student respondents thought it “acceptable” to use “violence to disrupt a controversial speaker.” 

The Apparatus of Repression

These attitudes only now and then break out into actual efforts to stop invited speakers, but they dominate everyday life on campus.  The University of Michigan, for example, has a “Bias Response Team” organized by the Dean of Students. Such teams are now a common part of the bureaucracy in American higher education. Ostensibly they provide a place where students who have been subject to discrimination, stereotyping, or harassment can report what happened.  But these terms, like “hate speech,” have no exact meaning for students.  They translate into “any speech I don’t like.”  Because these terms are so flexible, the Bias Report Teams typically become a tool for students to censor and intimidate other students. They further the culture of suspicion towards and intolerance of views that deviate from prevailing orthodoxies.  The demand for “safe spaces,” the fear of “cultural appropriation,” the insistence on “trigger warnings,” and a wide range of other rhetorical devices serve to keep students mindful that the college campus is not a place where they can speak freely or think things through independently.

Protecting the Innocent

No single piece of legislation can cure all these problems. Hostility to intellectual freedom has been growing on campus for a generation.  It has roots in a radical ideology that characterizes free speech as a means by which the prosperous and the privileged take advantage of the poor and un-privileged. Some social scientists trace the popularity of the movement against intellectual freedom to the emergence of highly protective styles of American parenting, or to the fragility of the modern family. Whatever the cause, we are confronted with a generation of students who hold cheap what earlier generations of Americans have held dear: the basic freedom to think for oneself and to express one’s views. Plainly this willingness to demote free speech in favor of “safe spaces” or some version of “social justice” has not been embraced by a whole generation of college-aged students. A substantial minority (39 percent) believe that “hate speech” is constitutionally protected.  And 49 percent in the poll mentioned above agreed that shouting down a speaker with whom one disagrees is “unacceptable.”   

Those who uphold the value of free speech, however, are at a disadvantage on college campuses where many of the faculty and administrators see merit in the disruptive tactics of the activists.  The campus authorities are in many cases complicit and endorse a view of the institution as a means to advance progressive political programs.  The demotion of free speech is part of a more general demotion of education in favor of political action.

The Senate Bills

SB 349 and SB 350 are together a significant step towards protecting Michigan’s public colleges and universities from the assault on free speech.  Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Michigan state senator representing the state’s seventh senate district, introduced the two bills calling for changes that will allow colleges and universities to punish students who violate the free speech rights of others. These bills, collectively called the Campus Free Speech Act, are based on model legislation published by Stanley Kurtz and the Goldwater Institute. Their proposal stands on the shoulders of three statements: Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, the University of Chicago’s 2015 Stone Report, and the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee Report. SB 350 is the main bill, offering a variety of relevant provisions.  SB 349 adds a provision that allows an individual who is “aggrieved by a violation” of the law to bring a legal action and seek monetary damages. 

The legislation requires that each public university and community college in Michigan that receives money from the state must participate in a Higher Education Committee on Free Expression. That committee will issue an annual report on free speech and expression at all the public universities and community colleges in Michigan. Each public university and community college that receives state funding must also adopt a policy on free expression and include information related to free speech and expression in freshman orientation programs.

In addition, the main bill (SB 350) specifies that those who interfere with others’ right to free expression will be subject to discipline, while making provision for peaceful protests that do not disrupt the function of the university, as well as for invited campus speakers to speak without interference.

Conscientious enforcement of these rules will give teeth to the declarations colleges and universities frequently make about their support for intellectual freedom. Many college presidents and chancellors pay  lip service to the principle of free speech, but seldom back their statements with concrete protections for the expression of controversial ideas. In light of that, the Campus Free Speech Act is a valuable safeguard for the kinds of discussion and debate that a college campus is supposed to foster.  

Intellectual freedom on campus faces constant threats, and the only way to ensure its survival is to continually resist those threats and affirm its crucial importance.

The National Association of Scholars welcomes these bill and hopes that their enactment will spur colleges and universities to foster and secure the practice of free expression. The Michigan legislature has now ended its fall session and will resume work in January.  We trust that these bills will move forward promptly in the New Year, but it would be helpful if NAS members in the state were to write to their legislators urging prompt action.  And it would be helpful to for NAS members to speak to their colleagues about the importance of SB 349 and SB 350 to the future of public higher education in Michigan.  The failure of public colleges and universities to protect intellectual freedom on campus is not lost on the general public whose good will is essential to the mission of public education.  SB 349 and SB 350 are positive steps toward assuring the public that higher education takes seriously its responsibilities to foster free of thought and speech.

Image: Wikimedia 

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