The Corner

Politics & Policy

Jim Runestad’s Michigan Campus Free Speech Amendment

Members of Antifa gather to protest during the Mother of All Rallies demonstration on the National Mall, September 16, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The Michigan State House of Representatives will shortly vote on a proposed amendment to the Michigan State Constitution that would allow the legislature to make laws governing the protection of free speech on Michigan’s public university and public community college campuses. The proposed amendment is sponsored by Rep. Jim Runestad, who has gathered an impressive group of 17 co-sponsors for House Joint Resolution P. (I testified in favor of the Runestad Amendment before the Michigan House Oversight Committee last October.)

If you are surprised and puzzled that a state constitutional amendment should be necessary in order for a legislature to protect freedom of speech at public universities, you are right to be concerned. The first duty of a legislature is to secure the rights of citizens. And since university administrators in Michigan have repeatedly failed to secure those rights—and  in fact have frequently flouted them by promulgating unconstitutional speech codes and so-called free-speech zones—the legislature has more than sufficient reason to act.

Unfortunately, while the precise constitutional status of legislative authority over public universities in Michigan remains uncertain, courts in Michigan have traditionally granted a high degree of constitutional independence to the state university system. While this is arguably appropriate for some curriculum questions, it is a grave error to prevent the legislature from acting to secure and protect fundamental liberties anywhere in Michigan, certainly including the state’s public universities.

After all, there have been problems aplenty. Runestad was propelled into action when students at Kellogg Community College were arrested for handing out pocket constitutions outside of an approved so-called free speech zone. Other free-speech zone cases have occurred in Michigan, and the flagship Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan has seen two egregious shout-downs in the past two academic years, with no discipline meted out to disruptors.

Concerned legislators in Michigan are taking a three-pronged approach to the problem of campus free-speech.

First, State Senator Patrick Colbeck has introduced legislation based on the Goldwater Institute’s model campus free speech bill (which I co-authored with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher). Colbeck’s bill is the best and most thorough legislative fix. Yet because of the constitutional ambiguities surrounding university independence in Michigan, Colbeck’s bill is framed as “the intent of the legislature,” a slightly weaker formulation than an ordinary law.

Second, the chairs of the House and Senate university budget subcommittees recently sent letters asking universities what they plan to do to protect controversial speakers from harassment on campus. The implication is that future university budgets will depend on the handling of this issue.

Third, Rep. Runestad’s proposed state constitutional amendment would remove any ambiguity about the power of the legislature to protect freedom of speech on Michigan’s public college campuses. Passage of the Runestad Amendment would increase the effectiveness of bills like Sen. Colbeck’s.

Opponents of the Runestad Amendment have argued that students continue to have recourse to lawsuits. Yet it’s shameful to force students to undertake expensive and troublesome lawsuits against their own universities, just to protect their basic rights. No student should have to face the personal and financial burdens involved in taking on their own schools. The fear of damaged career prospects alone would be prohibitive for most students. The failure of repeated lawsuits to solve the underlying problem shows that universities are determined to impose unconstitutional speech codes and so-called free speech zones, despite the legal risks. The time for legislative action has arrived.

Nothing ought to interfere with the Michigan legislature’s ability to protect the liberties of citizens, least of all the state constitution. Protecting individual rights is what legislatures are for. And university administrators in Michigan, as nationally, have consistently failed to safeguard the liberties of their students. On the contrary, administrators have been some of the worst violators of the very First Amendment protections they are pledged to uphold. It is intolerable that the citizens of Michigan should be reduced to funding public universities to the tune of billions of dollars, while being blocked from protecting their own liberties by way of their elected representatives.

The citizens of Michigan owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Runestad and his co-sponsors for moving to restore liberty in public places of learning throughout the state. Legislators who vote against House Joint Resolution P should and will be answerable to the voters this coming fall.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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