by Scott McClallen
State Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Township) (pictured above), has introduced two bills intended to fortify free speech protections on Michigan’s public college campuses.
Institutions across the country are struggling to deal with obligations to protect the free speech of both students and faculty, Reilly said.
HB 4435 sets out policies and different criteria that public colleges and universities must include within their free speech policies, including requiring open public spaces instead of quarantined sections.
Reilly told The Center Square that students, faculty and taxpayers suffer when universities restrict free speech.
“Not just for financial reasons because these are taxpayer dollars, because secondly, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Reilly said. “For everyone who goes through this, how many times do we have speech impeded by university policies?”
HB 4436 would require Michigan’s public universities’ speech policies align with the First Amendment as determined by the courts.
Reilly said he worked with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on the bills that garnered bipartisan support.
“The state’s public colleges and universities have the responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights of students and the community on campus grounds,” Reilly said in a statement.
“If you think of a place that we need free speech, it’s college campuses,” Reilly said. “Students are missing out on the ability to hear from a variety of viewpoints.”
FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn told The Center Square that his organization conducts annual reviews of more than 450 written university policies in the United States.
“What you’ll find when you look through that database is that a vast majority of schools maintain at least one policy that violates those rights or principles,” Cohn said.
Cohn said that public institutions must abide by their legal obligations under the First Amendment and private schools to their promises made to prospective and enrolled students with respect to free speech and academic freedom.
Cohn said they don’t want to eliminate all censorship on college campuses, but to instill certain aspects.
“For example, two written policies that quarantine speech to single areas of campus misleadingly called ‘free speech zones,”’ Cohn said. “There’s no reason the legislature can’t say, stop that.”
Reilly noted that in 2018, Kellogg Community College settled a free speech lawsuit for $55,000, according to The Battle Creek Enquirer, after students were arrested and jailed for seven hours for distributing copies of the United States Constitution on campus.
“All public colleges – which are supposed to be ‘marketplaces of ideas’ – have the duty to protect and promote the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” Reilly said. “Not to mention that it’s the taxpayers footing the bill for avoidable legal battles. The Legislature not only has the authority but the duty to protect free speech rights of its citizens and shield its taxpayers from unnecessary financial liability arising from lawsuits to resolve unconstitutional campus policies.”
The bills move to the House Judiciary Committee for further review and potential modification.
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square.