Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 14, 2013

NMC 'expression policy' put on hold

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Trustees placed a newly adopted “campus expression” policy on hold until Northwestern Michigan College staff can specify how it will be implemented and communicate the full policy to those affected.

A full implementation plan should clear up public misunderstanding, said Chairman Doug Bishop at an NMC Board study session on Monday.

“When we do that, it will become clearer that the intent behind this is appropriate,” Bishop said. “There is a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of misinformation of what it will do and how it will operate.”

The policy, adopted in April, confines petitioning, demonstrating, and other expressive activity to “designated free speech areas” and requires advance permission of four business days. The policy also places limits on content posted on bulletin boards and other spaces.

The policy did not specify where the free speech areas would be located, but NMC officials said petitioners and others wouldn’t be tucked away in a corner. The policy’s stated intent is to maintain an orderly environment in order for the college to smoothly operate.

The NMC Board unanimously voted Monday to hold the policy in abeyance until September when it will review the entire plan of how it will work.

Bishop declined to elaborate on how the policy was misunderstood and by whom, but said board members didn’t anticipate some of the questions they heard.

“We’re not trying to suppress free speech. It’s not a First Amendment issue at all when everything is represented,” Bishop said.

The policy was prompted, in part, by a professional petitioner who gathered signatures in a highly trafficked area at last year’s NMC Barbecue. The annual old-fashioned picnic attracts thousands, along with picketers and other folks who want to get their message out. The petitioner initially was asked to leave, but allowed to return to his spot after a city policeman said his activity was within his constitutional rights.

NMC’s new policy raised concerns by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, who said there shouldn’t be “constitution-free zones” on campus. The First Amendment provides people the right to gather in public to petition, march, protest, or otherwise express themselves in a nonviolent way.

Grand Traverse Prosecutor Bob Cooney recently said classrooms are protected areas, but otherwise it would be a “very, very rare situation for the police to get involved.”

“The purpose of law enforcement is to keep the peace, protect the safety of a person, and enforce state law,” he said.

Board member Susan Sheldon said it’s important to have legal enforcement behind the policy.

“There are questions still,” she said.

Bishop responded, “To be fair, the prosecutor and law enforcement can’t make a determination until they see how it will be implemented.”

The upcoming NMC barbecue will take place on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at NMC’s main campus.