A Litmus Test for Free Speech on Campus

I think I’m with most people on campus in feeling a — putting it lightly — heightened sense of tension ever since Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Everyone’s seen the posters with descriptions of Hamas’s hostages put up, ripped apart, then put up again. Everyone’s seen the pro-Palestinian rallies occupying the street.

With all the intimidation that comes with taking a side combined with U-M’s notorious reputation for “progressive” politics, the situation naturally raises the question: What does this mean for free speech on campus?

So far, university administrators, President Santa J. Ono especially, have been unafraid to raise their voices. In a series of statements sent via email, Ono has consistently affirmed the university’s commitment to free speech:

We will continue to defend everyone’s right to speak freely — and just as vigorously defend the rights of those who believe otherwise to speak just as loudly. Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of our community and essential to our core educational mission as a university.

Another statement, sent just over a week later by the university as a whole, went in depth about the university’s dedication to open discourse:

As an institution dedicated to learning, discourse and reasoned debate, the University of Michigan welcomes the expression of diverse viewpoints. Our commitment to free expression requires us to grapple with uncomfortable ideas, listen to others, think critically and ground our arguments in evidence.

As a public university in the United States, the University of Michigan is required to adhere to First Amendment protections of free speech. It’s a value that we should all acknowledge as fundamental to the effective functioning of an institution dedicated to advancing the world. It’s also a value we should hope the university respects not solely out of legal deference, but on principle.

Unfortunately, the University of Michigan has often fallen short on its obligations to foster a truly inclusive environment. It’s critical that we pay careful attention to the administration’s response and attitude as student groups’ demonstrations continue.

Despite being a public university, and no less one with a reputation that naturally calls for a higher expectation of diverse academic discourse, we rank only 47th out of 248 colleges and universities in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE) 2024 College Free Speech Rankings.

According to FIRE’s research, 73 percent of U-M students say “shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is at least rarely acceptable,” and 41 percent report having “self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month.” Even worse is that U-M ranks a pitiful 179th in “Comfort Expressing Ideas” and 89th in “Administrative Support.”

President Ono’s past record on free speech doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence either. Before his tenure at U-M, while serving as president of the University of British Columbia, Ono canceled speakers invited by student organizations and instituted subjective “guidelines” on controversial speaker bookings.

In light of the Hamas-Israel war, this one-sided approach to “protecting free expression” has already arrived on our campus.

On November 16 at a Young Americans for Freedom guest lecture, Newsweek’s John Hammer was quickly interrupted by anti-Israel protesters drowning out his voice with shouting, directly intimidating attendees, banging on glass doors, and plastering red handprints on the walls. In response, despite blatant First Amendment and university policy violations, the administration and police sat idle while demonstrators continued for over 30 minutes.

Whether or not the administration’s statements chalk up to empty words is up to time. We’ll have to wait and see how much of the close to $100 million raised for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts goes toward making the university more ideologically inclusive.

However, out of all the tension and disagreement, one can hope the conflict serves as an important reminder to the university administration of the importance of our most fundamental rights.

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About Andrew Kim

Andrew Kim is a freshman considering majors in political science and computer science.