Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 26, 2013

Editorial: NMC adopts dangerous policy to curb free speech

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The names reek of Orwellian double-speak: a “Campus Expression” policy is really about curtailing expression; designated “Free Speech” areas are really about limiting speech.

A policy adopted by Northwestern Michigan College trustees this week is a direct assault on the rights of students and others to speak, petition and debate. It’s got to go.

NMC officials wrapped the “Campus Expression” policy in terms of “protecting” individuals from the horrors of free speech and rights as basic as petitioning and protesting.

Vicki Cook, NMC’s vice president for finance and administration, said the “problem” is that people tried to circulate political petitions during NMC barbecues. Imagine that, circulating public policy petitions on public property at a public event. What’s next, protesting? Well, yes.

“Say the governor is coming to the Hagerty Center,” Cook said. “We have had people wanting to, I wouldn’t say ‘protest,’ but stand outside the building and express their opinion.”

Imagine that. Citizens who want to stand outside a public building on public property to express their opinion to an elected official? Who said they could have an opinion?

Not to worry. The college said it will allow (actually, require) petitioners and protesters to express themselves, but in specific areas so as not to “block the movement of students and campus visitors.” Imagine those poor students and visitors having to actually walk around someone circulating a petition on, say, free speech.

But the college will be nice about it, Cook said. “Right now we haven’t picked the spot, but we’ll make sure it’s in a reasonable location where they are visible” (a parking lot, perhaps).

For those who still want to petition or protest, there are rules. They’ll have to submit a request four days prior to the planned activity to be allowed to stand in a “Free Speech area;” decisions on whether (or not) to grant a permit may (or may not) be approved with or without conditions and must be issued at least a day before the planned activities.

Those decisions can’t be based on the content of the planned activity or the applicant’s viewpoint (trust us); petitioners who are turned down can request a review by the president (of the college, of course, not the United States).

For those trying to sneak in a little sedition by flyer, more rules.

Materials allowed on NMC billboards will include student election materials, solicitations for charities and fundraisers, ads to sell personal items and materials posted for informational purposes. So you can sell your couch, but not your politics.

There’s more. The policy bans the use of amplification and also allows NMC to keep individuals or groups with conflicting messages apart from each other.

No notice, advertisement, or any other document (the Constitution, perhaps?) can be attached to any wall, door, lamppost, tree, or other surface, except as provided in the policy. Consult your attorney.

This is eerily reminiscent of a policy adopted by the board a few years ago that would have prevented any board member from expressing an opinion about NMC business. All statements were to come from the board president. It was absurd on its face, as absurd as the new “Campus Expression” policy. The board seemed to forget that board members didn’t give up their right to speak when they got on the board or, further, that they were elected officials answerable to the voters, not the president of the board. It didn’t last long.

Apparently, this latest attempt to control speech isn’t a joke. And it’s certainly not funny. The fact that someone at NMC (someone being well paid for their time by public dollars, presumably) went to all this trouble to make up these draconian rules is bad enough. The fact that the administration apparently backed it is worse. The fact that the NMC board approved it is beyond belief.

Read the Bill of Rights. Post them on a bulletin board. Realize that “Campus Expression” can’t be dictated.

And dump this dangerous and insulting attempt to control free speech.