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Free speech bill passes State House committee

September 12, 2019
<p>The Capitol is pictured in Lansing on Feb. 9, 2019.</p>

The Capitol is pictured in Lansing on Feb. 9, 2019.

Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

A bill aiming to regulate universities’ and colleges’ power over student speech made progress in the State House.

House bills 4435 and 4436 were both introduced by Republican State Representative John Reilly and aim to protect speech and protests performed by students and staff of Michigan universities.  

The bill passed the House Committee on Oversight and has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary last Thursday, where it is likely to receive modifications. 

“We have a problem on campuses right now — and public schools — in that we’re not allowing free speech. It’s really getting curtailed,” Reilly said.

The legislation was submitted in the wake of clashes between college students and far-right speakers on Michigan campuses, specifically when white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at Michigan State. During his speech, far-right and anti-Spencer protesters clashed, resulting in several arrests. 

Reilly said the financial burden on people’s taxes drove him to write the bill. 

“(Students who feel their free speech is violated) sue the schools and basically get tax dollars to pay these different judgments,” Reilly said. “In the majority of cases, the schools are losing.”

Indeed, Battle Creek’s Kellogg Community College settled a free speech lawsuit in January 2018 for $55,000, which imposed a revision of the school’s free speech policy. 

The case centered around two students arrested for trespassing while recruiting for Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student activism organization.

The college said that recruiters needed approval from their Office of Student Life. The students said their constitutional right to free speech was being violated. 

Changes to the policy clarify a continued practice of allowing free speech without regard to content of expression.

Free speech legislation as introduced would require similar policy changes across the board and provide legal remedies to any violations. 

Reilly said he expressed pride in the bill’s bipartisan support and that some Democrats supported the proposal. 

“Most people are in favor of free speech,” Reilly said. 

House Fiscal Analyst Perry Zielak said in a legislative analysis that the bill would have a minimal affect on university funds.

The bill raises constitutional autonomy questions for public universities, making it unclear if universities would have to adopt the changes, according to the report.

The bill also protects college and university staff from being fired based on free speech.

Jeremiah Ward, MSU College Republicans Communications Chair, said the group wholeheartedly supports the bill. 

“The policies of MSU and other public universities ought to promote viewpoint diversity,” he said. 

MSU College Democrats Press Secretary Maysa Sitar also voiced support for the legislation.

“No one should ever be fired from their jobs for expressing how they feel,” Sitar said. 

Sitar also stressed the importance of protecting protests.

“I think it’s also important that, while the university respects free speech, that there is also an abundance of response,” Sitar said via text. “Just because someone like Richard Spencer is allowed to say horrible things doesn’t mean that groups like (MSU College Democrats) shouldn’t respond.”

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