There's No Such Thing as Free Parking

Or free speech, if you get a ticket at MSU

(Editor's note: This blog entry was updated to include a link to the Court of Appeals Opinion brief, which specifies MSU ordinance 15.05 is the alleged misdemeanor.)

People may laugh when they read that a parking ticket violation went before the Michigan Supreme Court last week. But strangely enough, what seems like a petty conflict merits further scrutiny.

The Detroit News reported that Michigan State University law student Jared Rapp “was placed on probation for two years, ordered to perform 80 hours of community service and fined $873” after yelling at a “parking-enforcement employee” who was giving him a ticket in 2008. Rapp argues that the university ordinance he supposedly violated infringes on his freedom of speech. The ordinance he was charged with violating was MSU ordinance 15.05, which states, “No person shall disrupt the normal activity or molest the property of any person, firm, or agency while that person, firm, or agency is carrying out service, activity or agreement for or with the University.”

The case comes on the heels of MSU’s being listed as No. 7 on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of the “terrible 12,” of American universities that particularly stand out as freedom-of-speech violators.

While a private university might be given more leeway in regulating student conduct by the courts, an ordinance at a public university like MSU — particularly a rule so stunningly general as the one stated — must not violate Jared Rapp’s freedom of speech. What’s troubling in the instant case is not so much that the university is cracking down on a guy who was mouthy with a university parking officer. What’s troubling is the unbalanced power dynamic that exists between universities and, well, everybody else.

So Rapp got a parking ticket and lost his cool. It’s not difficult to imagine feeling the same way. Yet even as people debate what Rapp should be able to say to the university officer, it is assumed that the actual ticket was deserved.

Should we take this for granted? The State News, quoting various university and city sources, reported that MSU Parking Services collected about $2.3 million from 111,585 parking tickets issued in 2011. It also reported that parking citations issued by the city collected $1.3 million in fiscal 2011. Only 20 percent of such revenue goes toward maintaining the parking system, such as repairing defective meters; the rest goes into East Lansing’s treasury for use as needed.

It’s not just university towns that are reaping massive benefits from parking violations. Michigan law will change in May to state that people will be limited to three unpaid parking tickets (down from six) before the Secretary of State will not renew a driver’s license. Once the tickets are paid, there is an additional $45 Secretary of State “clearance fee.” Some of this money is a fine, but some of it is used for unrelated activities and is essentially a hidden tax.

Were public safety the sole concern of these schools and the state, the immense profitability would be more easily defensible. Nor is MSU the worst academic offender in terms of the sheer number of ordinances — the University of Michigan has 31 sections of ordinances under “Traffic and Parking” alone, with separate subdivisions altogether for rules governing the Arboretum, U-M parking permits or “vehicular noise violations.”

As Adam Smith pointed out, “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” When the calling card of government is “public safety,” there is no foreseeable end to its capacity to regulate — and regulation is never free.

Above all else, the universities’ and state’s fixation on the manner in which students, townspeople and visitors park their cars is certainly not more important than the people’s right to express frustration with a commercial system in government.

So Rapp’s case may be about free speech after all. The state Supreme Court should consider this no laughing matter.