Policy at U of Michigan would limit distribution of publications
MICHIGAN -- A proposed policy at the University of Michigan that would limit the distribution of student publications in many campus buildings has some students worried the policy will infringe on their free speech rights.
The policy, in its early draft stage, would allow only student organizations under the Board of Student Publications or those recognized by the Michigan Student Assembly to distribute fliers or display publications in College of Literature, Science and the Arts buildings.
Any material distributed by student organizations, including the student newspaper, also would have to comply with university policies. For example, publications containing advertisements promoting alcohol or drugs would not be permitted.
"We don't want to be told whether we can sell ads to alcohol companies and distribute them [in our paper]," said Andrew Grossman, editor in chief of The Michigan Daily. "There's a lot about it that's pretty troubling."
Students would have a good chance of challenging such content restrictions because it is a more "clear-cut First Amendment case," said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.
Bob Johnston, director of the LSA Facilities and Operations Office, told the Michigan Daily that the intent of the policy is not to restrict content. Johnston also said the policy would help distinguish between student-created material and advertising for local businesses, the paper reported.
Under the policy, the LSA Facilities and Operations Office would have to approve any publication or flier before it could be posted or distributed in the college's buildings. LSA officials said the policy was developed partly to improve safety by reducing the amount of paper on the floors, the Michigan Daily reported.
Public universities can establish time, place and manner regulations on free speech to address a legitimate problem, Hiestand said. But if safety were the main concern, LSA officials would have to find the least restrictive regulation to free speech, he said.
The student paper ran an editorial on Wednesday lambasting the proposed policy.
"Shamelessly disguised as a harmless effort to reduce litter and promote safety, this policy would really be an act of unconstitutional suppression of free speech, compromising the autonomy of student publications and offering another example of the University's bad habit of disregarding students," the editorial said.
University officials said the policy also was developed to set formal guidelines for what publications would be allowed into the buildings.
"There were periodic requests for people to come into the building and leave publications," said Kelly Cunningham, a university spokesperson. "They realized that they didn't have guidelines. They didn't want to feel like they were making arbitrary decisions."
Haven Hall and the other LSA buildings it is connected to have always been places where any student can post fliers and distribute publications, said Andy Kroll, Michigan Daily news editor.
The university can deem some areas of the university "private" and can control what is distributed in those areas. But it would have a harder time proving that large LSA buildings like Haven Hall are private, especially if the university has allowed all students to distribute print and post material there in the past, Hiestand said.
"Once they've opened it up like that, their ability to put these regulations in place is restricted," he said.
If a final draft of the policy is approved, university officials will make sure students' rights are protected, Cunningham said.
"We'll make sure it's reviewed by our general counsel," she said. "Freedom of speech and expression is one of the hallmarks of our university."
The university is planning to schedule a meeting in the next few weeks where student media and organizations can voice their concerns and give feedback to the policy developers, Cunningham said.
By Emilie Yam, SPLC staff writer
Michigan, news, The Michigan Daily, University of Michigan