TRAVERSE CITY— Northwestern Michigan College students and staff have more free speech rights on campus than members of the general public, and college officials shouldn’t attempt to limit those rights with a “blatantly unconstitutional” speech policy.
So said civil rights attorneys who weighed in on the NMC board’s temporarily shelved “campus expression” policy.
Among them was Traverse City attorney Al Quick, who advised the NMC board this week to revamp its expression policy based on the evolution of court decisions. The NMC board approved the policy in April, but put it on hold in May after questions were raised about its constitutionality.
“I think most of us in the room know that free speech is protected under the First Amendment,” Quick said at an NMC board study session. “The courts jealousy guard that, and any regulations are scrutinized with great care. That does mean, however, that the First Amendment is absolute.”
The expression policy required a four-day advance application to obtain a permit for free speech activity, which could only take place in “designated free speech areas.”
Those rules might hold muster for “unaffiliated” people — the general public — but are not easily justified for students and college employees. That’s because courts have focused less on where free speech occurs -- such as sidewalks and parks -- and more on who is being regulated.
“The court said if you are a student, faculty, staff administrator, someone with a bonding with the university, in order to regulate their speech, you have to have a high degree of evidence and governmental interest to do that,” Quick said.
If the college is going to require a permit for the general public for expressive activity, it must be handled expeditiously; designated “free speech” areas can’t be tucked off in a distant corner, but put where citizens can communicate effectively, Quick said.
Other Michigan colleges have adopted free speech policies, in part, to help enforce trespassing violations, he said.
The campus expression policy was prompted by protesters who caused congestion when Gov. Rick Snyder spoke at the Hagerty Center in March 2012. College officials also were troubled by professional petitioner Dennis Rodzik, who gathered signatures at the 2012 NMC Barbecue, attended by thousands of people.
When threatened with arrest, Rodzik went to his car and called police administrators. They agreed he had a First Amendment right to petition and allowed him to return to the barbecue.
Rodzik said “free expression zones” is paramount to restricting free speech.
“It’s never been the intention of our founding fathers to have the government issue permits for free speech,” he said. “... As long as you’re not interrupting the classroom process, you should have access to public property.”
Rodzik plans to gather petition signatures at NMC this winter to repeal Michigan’s new wolf-hunting law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sent trustees a six-page letter objecting to their original expression policy.
“There is no indication that NMC’s campus has been plagued by mayhem or disorder as a result of expressive activity ...,’” wrote ACLU-affiliated attorneys Franklin Steve Morse of Suttons Bay and Daniel Korobkin of Detroit.
They said that “fear or apprehension of a disturbance” is not enough to overcome the right to free expression on campus.
They wrote the college could finely tune regulations for special events such as campus barbecues, but they shouldn’t impede free speech across the campus or throughout the year.
Quick also recommended Monday that the college consider temporary speech restrictions for NMC Barbecue events.
Board member Cheryl Gore Follette said she wanted to make sure the public had plenty of time to weigh in on the proposed policy after it’s drafted by the policy committee.
Korobkin reserved comment until he saw the changes in writing.
“Our position on the one they proposed in April was that it was clearly and blatantly unconstitutional,” he said. “Until then, our position is the same. There should be no policy on campus that restricts the free speech of students. College campuses are a public space.”