‘The Michigan Review’ Highlights U of M’s Red-Light Speech Codes

December 8, 2010

In an article for The Michigan Review, a student newspaper at the University of Michigan (U-M), Joss van Seventer explains how the school’s red-light “Bias and Hate Speech” policy contradicts the university’s rich history of free speech, from the “turbulent protests of the 60s” to U-M’s “modern-day reputation as a leading center of research and inquiry.” The article quotes Will on this point:

“It may be well-intentioned, but the University of Michigan’s Bias and Hate Speech policy infringes on students’ First Amendment rights,” FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley said. “In the rough-and-tumble environment of our liberal democracy, there is no right not to be offended.” Creeley believes Michigan needs to seriously rethink its speech codes. “As a public university, Michigan is legally and morally obligated to allow its students all the rights provided by the First Amendment,” Creeley said.

When van Seventer questioned him about the policy, U-M Associate General Counsel Jack Bernard responded that the code was both legal and necessary:

“As an educational institution with students from a wide range of countries and cultures, it’s important for Michigan to have a framework that facilitates communication,” Bernard said. Bernard further added that he did not believe there to be any conflict between the constitutionally-protected right to free speech and the University’s policies. “The law certainly limits what policies the University can put in place, but it also gives us a measure of leeway, and we have definitely stayed within its boundaries,” he said.

Bernard declines to explain how, exactly, a policy that prohibits a wide swath of protected speech “facilitates communication.” His statement is also incorrect on the law: As a public university, U-M does not have “leeway” to substantively restrict free speech on campus. Bernard’s defense of speech codes is truly unfortunate, because as Will points out, U-M would only need to make minor revisions to change its one red-light code to green:

“If the University would be willing to reconsider its Bias and Hate Speech policy, it could move from a red light school to a yellow or green light institution very easily,” Creeley said.

Hopefully, van Seventer’s article will help students and administrators alike recognize the need for speech code reform at U-M. Of course, FIRE stands ready to help.

Schools:  University of Michigan – Ann Arbor