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Committee hearing held on campus free speech legislation

Jayel Aheram

The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony this week on recently introduced campus free speech legislation.

The legislation would require Michigan's public colleges and universities to adopt a policy on free expression that includes, at a minimum, 12 statements spelled out in the act.

One required provision of the policy would be the mandatory expulsion or one year suspension of  a student who has twice been found responsible for infringing on the expressive rights of others.

The legislation also would require the creation of a 12-member higher education committee on free expression in the state Department of Education. The committee would have to issue an annual written report for the public, the governor and the Legislature on disruptions to free expression at Michigan's public universities and colleges and how they were handled.

In a written statement submitted to the committee, State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, who sponsored the legislation, said, "In the interest of preserving our core value of freedom of speech, I have introduced SB 349 and SB 350to protect the increasingly rare principle of freedom of speech at our colleges and universities."

Colbeck cited a handful of high-profile incidents on college campuses where protests have derailed appearances of controversial speakers or where students were prevented by the university from distributing literature.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Association of State Universities oppose the legislation.

"The bill has these kind of undefined and really broad terms for interference and infingement," said Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel of the Michigan ACLU. She said that the vagueness could penalize or chill protected free speech.

Buddin also said the bill's mandatory penalties for a student's second violation is a bad idea that would prevent universities from making the punishment fit the type of violation and the circumstances around it.

Buddin said the legislation did not add to free expression protections already provided under the state and federal constitutions. 

"We find the two bills to be simply unnecessary," said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. "Given  the fact that there are thousands of events every year - guest speakers, demonstrations, you name it -- held on our college campuses, virtually without incident."

"There are very broad protections already afforded to all students and guests involving free expression and free speech," said Hurley. "And these bills do nothing to advance that cause."

He said the bills are an attempt to fix something that is not broken, and removes decision-making from the elected or appointed boards of Michigan's public universities and colleges.

Colbeck was not available for comment.