Northwestern Michigan College Establishes ‘Free Speech Areas’

May 6, 2013

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), a community college located in Traverse City, Michigan, recently declared its campuses to be limited public forums, and it has declared that only certain areas of campus are open for free expression. Although the boundaries of these so-called “free speech areas” are not yet available on the NMC website, statements from administrators at this public institution provide ample cause for worry.

Vicki Cook, NMC’s vice president for finance and administration, expressed her concerns to the Traverse City Record-Eagle about “people wanting to, I wouldn’t say ‘protest,’ but stand outside [a] building [where a visiting speaker is arriving] and express their opinion.” To be clear, the issue is not about students attacking a visitor or disrupting classes, which could be prohibited with clearly written, narrowly tailored policies. No, this policy was inspired in part by students petitioning at campus barbecues.

Cook added, “Right now we haven’t picked the spot, but we’ll make sure it’s in a reasonable location where [students] are visible.” The fact that Cook is referring to the area as a “spot” suggests that we should brace ourselves for the kind of restrictive, pitifully small free speech zone that was ruled unconstitutional at the University of Cincinnati last year.

As written in the Campus Expression policy, “Remaining areas” of NMC, outside the free speech area, “are reserved for other than expressive activity and therefore are not open to such activity.” One might wonder whether continuing a discussion from class with a friend would qualify as “expressive activity,” since there is no apparent requirement that expression be loud or targeted at a broader audience.

Even within the designated areas, students must apply for a permit “not less than four (4) business days prior to the planned activity.” This prohibits ongoing and real-time reactions to current events and even delays potential counter-protests well past the time when they would be most effective. This notice-and-permit scheme is a pretty clear violation of this public college’s obligation to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights; after all, the Supreme Court has held that “[i]t is offensive—not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society—that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of NY, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 165–66 (2002).

The policy further states (emphasis added): “Failure to follow the time, place, and manner conditions may result in College disciplinary action, or arrest and/or prosecution.” This threat creates serious potential for expression to be chilled, particularly with NMC’s already very restrictive policy. (The threat of criminal punishment is also reminiscent of the University of Cincinnati’s ill-fated policy.)

FIRE will keep a close watch on NMC for when it designates the free speech area boundaries on its several campuses, but things aren’t looking good for student expression at NMC.