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.