Free Speech Under Fire

Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton), Deion Kathawa, Stanley Kurtz, and Jim Manley participate in a panel discussion at the Mackinac Center's Issues & Ideas Forum Fighting for Free Speech on Michigan University Campuses.

With a growing number of college campuses creating “safe spaces,” protesters silencing speakers and students facing restrictions on their speech, universities are under scrutiny.

A recent Mackinac Center event discussed free speech on campuses and how to ensure universities are being fair and protecting this important right. A panel featuring a recent University of Michigan graduate, a free speech scholar, an attorney and a state senator discussed free speech and its presence, or lack thereof, on Michigan campuses.

Jim Manley, a senior attorney at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, discussed the importance of free speech and how it has been eroded. He said the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech and ideas.

“The soul of the American university is the free exchange of ideas,” Manley said. “Colleges need to be places where you can think the unthinkable.”

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, gave examples of free speech being chilled across campuses. Kurtz talked about disputes at the University of California-Berkeley (which resulted in a riot) and Middlebury College (where a professor was assaulted). He also commented on the University of Michigan, where a debate over the Black Lives Matter movement was shouted down, to the approval of the student newspaper. Each event was canceled because of protesters, who faced little punishment.

“The real point of speaker shout-downs is to police the acceptable boundaries of speech,” Kurtz said. “Even a few shout-downs of speakers who challenge the reigning orthodoxies on campus suffice to send a message to the entire campus, to the entire state, and often nowadays, to the entire nation.”

Deion Kathawa, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, talked about his time on campus as a conservative. Though he has never witnessed a shout-down personally, he doesn't doubt their existence. He said a major problem is that many students don’t understand free speech as described in the Constitution.

Kathawa said many students think if they disagree with you, you shouldn’t have a platform. “A lot of times I’ll have conversations with peers and they’ve just never heard someone who’s … espousing whatever view it is that I’m espousing. It’s like I’m a unicorn; they’ve just never heard someone my age talking the way I talk.”

Sen. Patrick Colbeck is sponsoring the Michigan Campus Free Speech Act. This bill would require universities to track acts that chill free speech and do something about them. He also called the bill redundant, stating that it was “belt-and-suspenders” legislation.

“We have a first amendment that says you have the right to free speech. So why do we have laws that say we need to have the right to free speech? We’ve already got the belt, why do we need the suspenders?”