Michigan lawmakers fed up with inaction on campus free speech

Several state representatives in Michigan are backing a resolution that would amend the state's Constitution to give the State Legislature oversight of free speech on public university campuses.

Currently, elected boards of regents oversee free speech issues, but lawmakers say they have not done enough to combat the growing trend of disruptive protests intended to suppress free speech.

Michigan lawmakers have proposed an amendment to the state’s Constitution that would enable the State Legislature to pass legislation protecting free speech on college campuses.

Currently, Michigan’s constitution grants oversight of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University to an elected board of regents, trustees, or governors, unlike most other states. 

As it stands, the University of Michigan Board of Regents consists of five Democrats, two Republicans, and one unknown; the Michigan State University Board of Trustees is split between four Democrats and four Republicans; and the Wayne State University Board of Governors has 5 Democrats and 3 Republicans. 

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Republican State Rep. Jim Runestad, however, told Campus Reform that he doesn’t believe Michigan institutions are protecting campus free speech to the best of their ability, adding that he believes violent protesters needs to face stricter punishments. 

Joint Resolution P, introduced by Runestad with the co-sponsorship of several other Republicans, would amend the state constitution to “authorize the legislature to provide by law for the protection of free speech at public institutions of higher education.

“Once some of these students actually have some sanction against them it’ll put an end to this. Right now, they just permit them to” engage in disruptive protests, he told Campus Reform, referencing multiple instances in his home states that led him to introduce the bill, include one case at Kellogg Community College where students were arrested for handing out copies of the Constitution. 

Runestad clarified that he is supportive of peaceful protests, but “100 percent” believes that action should be taken against students who disrupt events. 

“The minute that you are trying to shut down free speech and say no, you are the only one that can speak, and if someone else speaks you’ll violently suppress them, you need to go to jail,” he told Campus Reform

[RELATED: Michigan law would suspend students for suppressing speech]

The representative added that he thinks the State Legislature will act more decisively than the regents to protect free speech, saying, “the responsiveness is going to be much better to these violations by the legislature rather than an insulated eight year official who is obscure and nobody knows who he or she is.”

Runestad also gave a second reason why he thinks the legislature will do a better job than the regents at writing free speech policy, pointing out that the legislators are elected locally, rather than statewide.

“The legislators are elected locally, and the regents are elected statewide, and pretty much once they’ve got some name ID, they’re in there for as long as they want to be,” Runestad said. 

“We need to have reforms also of the regents,” he added, noting that he does not see the regents bring up free speech issues at all. “I would like them elected by districts so that they’re much smaller areas, and you can then work to unseat a bad one.”

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According to WWMT, Runestad is facing opposition from some of his Democratic counterparts, including State Rep. Kevin Hertel, who believes the issue has already been sufficiently addressed. 

”The Supreme Court has already ruled that they have the ability to regulate time and place. These institutions have a responsibility to make sure that the students on campuses are safe, so I think they are well within their means,” he argued, 

Rep. Sherry Gay Dagnogo, meanwhile, objected for different reasons, fretting that efforts to safeguard free speech could also allow “hate speech” on campus.

”I don’t think it’s our duty or responsibility to dig in the affairs of our universities that already have a governing structure in place that can address that,” she explained. “But I think it’s also important to point out that we’ve had challenges on our college [campuses] where hate speech has begun to take root, so we don’t want to in this resolution or any other bill create a pathway to advance hate.” 

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