Legislation in Five States, Including Michigan, Calls for an End to Campus “Safe Spaces” and “Free Speech Zones”

Legislation in Five States, Including Michigan, Calls for an End to Campus “Safe Spaces” and “Free Speech Zones”

by Starlee Coleman

If Bernie Sanders and Ann Coulter being on the same side isn’t enough to signal the campus protests of conservative speakers have gone too far, perhaps the fact that lawmakers in California, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin have introduced legislation to put an end to them is?

The New York Times published a piece about the Wisconsin legislation.

Last week, the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the recently introduced campus free speech legislation sponsored by State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton.

One required provision of the proposed legislation 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. Colbeck’s policy would also create a 12-member higher education committee on free expression in the state Department of Education. The committee would produce annual written report for the public, the governor and the Legislature on challenges to free expression at Michigan’s public universities and colleges and how those situations 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 350 to protect the increasingly rare principle of freedom of speech at our colleges and universities.”

In her 2016 convocation speech, Brown University President Christina Paxson explained that a reporter had recently asked school officials if Brown had established any “safe spaces” on campus. “What on earth are they referring to?” Paxson said. “Idea-free zones staffed by thought police, where disagreement is prohibited?” While “safe spaces” have become the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits, the truth is, this kind of challenge to campus free speech is now widespread. Surveys show that student support for restrictive speech codes and campus bans on controversial speakers is at historic heights.

The Goldwater Institute, in collaboration with Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, released model state-level legislation designed to protect freedom of speech at public universities, along with a white paper explaining the model legislation’s provisions

“To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive legislative proposal ever offered to protect and preserve campus free speech. It promises to kick off a national debate on how best to address the ever-growing threats to freedom of thought and expression at our colleges and universities,” said Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The report, Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal, details the history of free speech on campus and reviews some of the most thoughtful reports that have been published on the topic. The authors used this historical context to develop model legislation for state lawmakers that is designed to ensure free expression at America’s public university systems. The key provisions in this model legislation are inspired by three classic defenses of campus free speech: Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, The University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report, and the University of Chicago’s 2015 Stone Report.

“The Campus Free Speech Act gives the First Amendment bite,” said Jim Manley, Senior Attorney at the Goldwater Institute and a co-author of the Act and report. “Where this bill becomes law, there will be real consequences for anyone—including protestors, administrators, or professors—who tries to prevent others from expressing their opinions. The legislation also provides robust due process protections for anyone accused of trying to silence speech.”

The model legislation does the following:

  • Creates an official university policy that strongly affirms the importance of free expression, nullifying any existing restrictive speech codes in the process.
  • Prevents administrators from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial, whom members of the campus community wish to hear from.
  • Establishes a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interferes with the free-speech rights of others.
  • Allows persons whose free-speech rights have been improperly infringed by the university to recover court costs and attorney’s fees.
  • Reaffirms the principle that universities, at the official institutional level, ought to remain neutral on issues of public controversy to encourage the widest possible range of opinion and dialogue within the university itself.
  • Ensures that students will be informed of the official policy on free expression.
  • Authorizes a special subcommittee of the university board of trustees to issue a yearly report to the public, the trustees, the governor, and the legislature on the administrative handling of free-speech issues.

“The Goldwater Institute helped design legislation signed last year that makes entire college campuses in Arizona free speech zones,” said Jonathan Butcher, education policy director at the Goldwater Institute and co-author of the report. “This model law takes that concept one step further by protecting all forms of free expression on college campuses around the country.”

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 infringement,” Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel of the Michigan ACLU, to Michigan Radio. Buddin said that the vagueness could penalize or chill protected free speech.

3 Responses to "Legislation in Five States, Including Michigan, Calls for an End to Campus “Safe Spaces” and “Free Speech Zones”"

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  2. J. Adeo   July 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    ‘Safe Space’ areas would be better designated for what they really espouse – restricted speech areas. Note: This area is owned by the people, paid for by taxpayers No freedom of speech allowed in this area.
    Safe space activism stems primarily from the separatist impulses associated with the politics of identity, already rampant on campus. For some individuals, the attraction of a safe space is that it insulates them from not just hostility, but the views of people who are not like them.(LA Times)
    The legislation supports the forum where freedom of speech is as it should be, our most protected right.

  3. Jeff Hayner   May 25, 2017 at 8:28 am

    We need something to confirm and protect the Free Speech rights of kids in our public schools and universities. It seems that there is quite a bit of intolerance for speech or ideas that could be considered outside the “liberal norm”. My son reports being shouted down in class for putting forth ideas that are contrary to liberal orthodoxy; this free speech-stifling behavior was supported and encouraged by the classroom teacher. Complaints to administration fell on deaf ears, no one really seemed to care that he and I considered it a violation his right to express himself freely; and a quashing of alternative and legitimate points of view. This does great harm to creating and providing an environment where real learning and questioning happens, clearly our public schools are NOT a marketplace of ideas.

    I guess Ice-T had it right way back in 1989 when he called out the hypocrisy he saw at work in our nation: “Freedom of Speech…just watch what you say.”


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