University of Michigan Considers Major Restrictions upon Student Publications

February 7, 2008

The University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) is contemplating new regulations that would severely impinge upon the fundamental liberties of all student publications on campus. As reported in both the Michigan Daily and the Michigan Review, LSA’s Facilities and Operations Department seeks to limit the distribution and posting of student-created print material, such as publications, fliers, and informational signs, in all LSA buildings.

The proposed policies would limit distribution and posting to those organizations and publications that are under the oversight of the Board for Student Publications or are recognized by the Michigan Student Assembly. Each organization or publication would additionally have to apply to and gain permission from the Facilities and Operations Department before it could post or distribute any printed materials. They would also be subject to separate university policies, such as a ban on displaying or distributing advertising that promotes the consumption of alcohol or other drugs. Finally, LSA would completely prohibit the distribution of print materials between the dates of April 14 and September 15.

It is difficult to decide where to even begin with these proposed regulations. What alarms me perhaps more than anything else is the flimsiness of the university’s proffered justification. Detailed in the Daily article, it might properly be labeled the "newspapers as banana peels" theory:

Bob Johnston, director of the LSA Facilities and Operations Office, said the new policy was created in part to limit the amount of loose papers scattered on the floors of LSA buildings. He said students could potentially slip on papers and injure themselves, creating a possible liability for the University.

Really? Has it come to the point where such a speculative concern paves the way for the kind of broad, far-reaching regulations at issue here? As a recent LSA graduate, I can say with certainty that I never witnessed anyone slipping on printed materials or being otherwise physically harmed or endangered by their presence. And how could this concern possibly justify, say, a complete ban on distribution during five months of the year?

Indeed, the reach of the proposed regulations is staggering. For one thing, they would completely exclude non-student publications, which in a wonderful college town like Ann Arbor means that worthy community publications (such as the Ann Arbor News‘ "Food, Fun & Fitness") would be cut off from the LSA student populace. Of course, this is to say no less of the fact that student publications that are not under the oversight of the Board for Student Publications or are not recognized by the Michigan Student Assembly would similarly be excluded from LSA buildings. These results would be inimical to Michigan’s stated approach to freedom of expression, as FIRE’s Will Creeley pointed out in the Daily:

Implementation of the policy would be "a worrisome development at a university that not only is bound by the First Amendment, but also boasts of ‘an especially strong commitment to preserve and protect freedom of thought and expression’ in its Fundamental Tenets of Membership in the University Community," he said.

In other words, Michigan, in addition to being legally bound by the First Amendment as a public university, is morally bound to follow through on its promises for the benefit and enrichment of its student body.

So how can a university with "an especially strong commitment" to free speech prohibit any and all distribution of printed materials inside LSA buildings for nearly half of the calendar year? Such a policy goes well beyond addressing any concerns about newspaper clutter and the like, and proceeds instead into the realm of stifling student expression. And why did LSA choose those five months? What makes them so different from the rest of the year? What is it about that time period that could possibly necessitate a complete ban?

Regarding the application process for distribution approval, there is a palpable danger of selective censorship, no matter what the university might say. As proposed, the LSA regulations would grant distribution requests on a "first come, first serve" basis, but they stipulate that "LSA reserves the right to limit the number of times per academic term and/or per year in which a recognized student organization will be granted permission to distribute publications in LSA facilities." Once again, the Daily quotes Will on the dangers of the suggested framework:

"As proposed, the policy would subject student publications to an arbitrary and opaque application process, allowing administrators entirely too much discretion to control what publications are allowed to reach the student body," Creeley said.

While the application process purports to accommodate the needs of all publications and organizations, the lack of defined selection criteria means that officials would have plenty of latitude in deciding whether or not to grant a particular request. So if a publication has in the past been critical of the university administration, challenged LSA policies, or discussed disfavored topics, might it face the danger of being denied distribution requests in order to "accommodate" other publications? One would hope not, but the application process proposed by the LSA regulations makes this a possibility.

It is one thing for a university to regulate the distribution of student publications on campus. But when those regulations create even the potential for censorship based on publication content and ideology, student free speech rights have been endangered. I sincerely hope that Michigan retracts the proposed regulations, as they are currently formulated, before this fine institution becomes the target of public ridicule and shame.