Commentary: Free speech, hate speech and campus values

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Capital News Service

LANSING — From our earliest days of independence to the present, it’s been tough to balance constitutional rights and other fundamental American values:

The Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Red Scare of the Joseph McCarthy era and the suppression of civil rights and the rights to speak and publish freely, to worship, to wed, to protest, to privacy.

We’re now witnessing one such debate on public and private college campuses, according to a new national study examining student attitudes toward diversity and inclusivity on one side balanced against free speech on the other.

“College students are divided over whether it’s more important to promote an inclusive society that welcomes diverse groups or to protect free speech, even if those protections come at the expense of inclusivity,” said the report, “Free Expression on College Campuses.”

Meanwhile in Lansing, some GOP lawmakers are pushing legislation they assert would strengthen students’ First Amendment rights at public universities and community colleges.

College Pulse, an online survey and analytics firm, did the study commissioned by the Knight Foundation and based on interviews with 4,407 full-time students in four-year degree programs. They included about 100 students from Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. However, there were too few Michigan participants to “break out and draw conclusive insights into what Michigan students think,” according to Jake Gaba, College Pulse’s vice president of marketing.

Overall, 53% ranked free speech protections higher, while 46% put diversity first.

The overall figures mask sharp differences For example, almost 60% of women but only 28% of men valued inclusiveness more highly than free speech. More than 60% of African-American students put inclusiveness first, but less than half of Hispanic, white and Asian-Pacific Islanders did.

The report noted a “stark divide between Christian and non-Christian students.” Most Mormons (81%), white evangelical Protestants (71%), mainline white Protestants (64%) and Catholics (62%) ranked free speech ahead of diversity. However, Jewish (65%), Hindu, Buddhist and other Asian religions (60%) and “religiously unaffiliated” (54%) students placed priority on inclusiveness. Nonwhite Protestants favored inclusivity over free speech by a narrow margin (51% vs. 49%).

On a related question – “which is a bigger problem, people speaking insensitively in a way that offends others, or people being too insensitive about others’ language” – most students (six in 10) said people are too sensitive.

There was a gender split. Among men, 74% responded that people are too easily offended, while the figure was 51% for women.

Gender differences were apparent on whether the First Amendment protects hate speech – defined as “attacks on people based on their race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Among women, only 46% said it should be protected, contrasted with 74% of men. Only 35% of gay and lesbian students and only 29% of students who identify as gender nonbinary said hate speech is entitled to protection.

On another question, 9% percent of students said it’s always acceptable to deny the press access to cover campus protests and rallies, while 49% say it’s sometimes acceptable to do so – a troubling sentiment at a time when First Amendment freedom of the press is under attack on other fronts.

The two most important takeaways from the study from my perspective as a journalist, professor and citizen: First, the findings show today’s students can think deeply about these crucial but no-right-answer issues.

Second, efforts to brand campuses as “liberal” or “conservative” are often political rhetoric that misleadingly homogenizes America’s 19.9 million college students.

Campus protests and demonstrations aren’t uncommon in Michigan, including ones in recent years at the University of Michigan and Michigan State (ultra-right speakers), Hope College (whether to dismiss the college president), Eastern Michigan University (allegedly racist graffiti), Wayne State (whether to terminate a professor) and Albion College (discriminatory harassment).

On the legislative front, some Republicans say the state should intervene in regulation of campus speech.

“The state’s public colleges and universities have the responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights of students and the community on campus grounds,” the lead sponsor, Rep. John Reilly of Oakland Township, said in a Facebook post after a House committee hearing this spring. “Right now, students at multiple universities live under speech policies that infringe on their rights to free speech and assembly. Due to some schools’ ongoing unwillingness to ensure their rights, the Legislature must do so.”

One bill, “would specify the criteria by which a public institution of higher learning could restrict expressive conduct in public areas of its campuses,” according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.

It would define “expressive conduct” to include “peaceful forms of assembly, protest, speech, distributing literature, carrying signs and circulating petitions in open areas, and filming and broadcasting on the internet.”

Under that bill, colleges could restrict “expressive conduct in public areas” only if “necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest and is viewpoint-neutral and content-neutral.”

Colleges also would need to provide “ample alternative opportunities to engage in the expressive conduct” and couldn’t “quarantine speech to zones,” the analysis said.

The other bill would require public colleges to “develop and adopt a policy on free expression,” distribute it to students and develop programs to ensure that administrators, instructors and campus police understand the policy and related regulations, the analysis said.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Michele Hoitenga of Manton; Steven Johnson of Wayland Township; Aaron Miller of Sturgis; Luke Meerman of Polkton Township; Gregory Markkanen of Hancock; and Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain.

President Michael Hansen of the Michigan Community College Association questioned the need for legislative action.

“To a large extent it’s a solution looking for a problem,” he explained. “One or two isolated incidents at one or two colleges over a 50-year period is hardly a concern,” he said. “For colleges, 99.9% of the time it is never an issue.”

In “rare cases” when a conflict occurs, “it’s typically handled in an appropriate manner with all interests involved,” Hansen said. “Those are such rare isolated cases, to now develop a whole set of state laws and regulations around this probably is not the appropriate approach from our standpoint.”

Although the association hasn’t surveyed its members, he said the majority of community colleges probably have policies in place, and some are adopting more formal policies due to litigation. While the sponsors may intend to “bring clarity and structure,” legislation that would “write policy for our institutions” could create confusion and reduce clarity, he said.

Eric Freedman is the director of Capital News Service. This commentary is adapted from his column for

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