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Michigan Senate Subcommittee Proposes Penalty for Speech About Labor Unions

In response to Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) plans to adopt programs from the National Labor College, the Michigan Senate’s Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee has authored a budget provision (PDF) that would fine public universities within the state $500,000 for “each occurrence” of “any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees.” If enacted, this provision would significantly infringe on the academic freedom of state universities and their professors and set a dangerous precedent for those who wish to silence debate on any number of controversial issues.

The change to the budget is summarized in the Michigan Senate’s bill analysis (PDF):

[A] public university that receives funds under section 236 shall not participate in any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees including, but not limited to participating with any business or union, or group of businesses or unions, in hosting, sponsoring, administering, or in any way facilitating an academy, seminar, class, course, conference, or program that provides instruction, in whole or in part, in techniques for encouraging or discouraging employees in regard to union organizing. The appropriation in section 236 for any university that participates in an activity described in this section shall be reduced by $500,000 for each occurrence.

That document also shows an expected $500,000 reduction in funding for MSU because of this provision. Michigan Radio relays a purported rationale behind the budget item:

“I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university,” said state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who chairs the panel that directs higher education funding in the House.

“But this is a case where I think we’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

The critical question, though, is not whether Representative Pscholka thinks “almost encouraging” labor disputes is “appropriate,” but whether public universities may be punished for providing a forum for students and faculty to discuss a particular topic because it might be controversial. They cannot. Further, it is not at all clear why out of all the “difficult subjects” discussed at Michigan institutions of higher education, the topic of labor disputes is so beyond the pale that it cannot be discussed—whether to encourage or discourage a certain action. If this provision were to pass, what would prevent legislators from banning a variety of subjects from public university classrooms, one by one?

As we continually emphasize here on The Torch, and as the Supreme Court has stated, universities are meant to be “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” Students and faculty must remain free to discuss any subject, particularly matters of public concern like the topic of unions. And that includes hosting union members, teaching classes on the topic, or other methods of bringing relevant information to a university community.

Unfortunately, 2014 has already seen several instances of state legislators attempting to control what gets discussed in public universities. Tennessee lawmakers tried to put a stop to “Sex Week” at the University of Tennessee for the second year in a row. South Carolina lawmakers are considering budget cuts to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate as punishment for assigning books on LGBT topics to freshmen.

Like these proposals, the new budget provision is an impermissible attempt by Michigan’s Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee to impose censorship at the state’s public colleges and universities. Michigan lawmakers must reject this provision and abide by their legal and moral obligations to uphold the First Amendment.

FIRE will watch closely for updates.

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