Policy at U of Michigan would limit distribution of publications

MICHIGAN — A proposed policy at the University of Michiganthat would limit the distribution of student publications in many campusbuildings has some students worried the policy will infringe on their freespeech rights.

The policy, in its early draft stage, would allow only studentorganizations under the Board of Student Publications or those recognized by theMichigan Student Assembly to distribute fliers or display publications inCollege of Literature, Science and the Arts buildings.

Any material distributed by student organizations, including the studentnewspaper, also would have to comply with university policies. For example,publications containing advertisements promoting alcohol or drugs would not bepermitted.

“We don’t want to be told whether we can sell ads to alcohol companies anddistribute them [in our paper],” said Andrew Grossman, editor in chief ofThe Michigan Daily. “There’s a lot about it that’s prettytroubling.”

Students would have a good chance of challenging such content restrictionsbecause 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, toldthe Michigan Daily that the intent of the policy is not to restrictcontent. Johnston also said the policy would help distinguish betweenstudent-created material and advertising for local businesses, the paperreported.

Under the policy, the LSA Facilities and Operations Office would have toapprove any publication or flier before it could be posted or distributed in thecollege’s buildings. LSA officials said the policy was developed partly toimprove safety by reducing the amount of paper on the floors, the MichiganDaily reported.

Public universities can establish time, place and manner regulations onfree speech to address a legitimate problem, Hiestand said. But if safety werethe main concern, LSA officials would have to find the least restrictiveregulation to free speech, he said.

The student paper ran an editorial on Wednesday lambasting the proposedpolicy.

“Shamelessly disguised as a harmless effort to reduce litter and promotesafety, this policy would really be an act of unconstitutional suppression offree speech, compromising the autonomy of student publications and offeringanother example of the University’s bad habit of disregarding students,” theeditorial said.

University officials said the policy also was developed to set formalguidelines for what publications would be allowed into the buildings.

“There were periodic requests for people to come into the building andleave publications,” said Kelly Cunningham, a university spokesperson. “Theyrealized that they didn’t have guidelines. They didn’t want to feel like theywere making arbitrary decisions.”

Haven Hall and the other LSA buildings it is connected to have always beenplaces where any student can post fliers and distribute publications, said AndyKroll, Michigan Daily news editor.

The university can deem some areas of the university “private” and cancontrol what is distributed in those areas. But it would have a harder timeproving that large LSA buildings like Haven Hall are private, especially if theuniversity has allowed all students to distribute print and post material therein the past, Hiestand said.

“Once they’ve opened it up like that, their ability to put theseregulations in place is restricted,” he said.

If a final draft of the policy is approved, university officials will makesure students’ rights are protected, Cunningham said.

“We’ll make sure it’s reviewed by our general counsel,” she said. “Freedomof speech and expression is one of the hallmarks of our university.”

The university is planning to schedule a meeting in the next few weekswhere student media and organizations can voice their concerns and give feedbackto the policy developers, Cunningham said.

By Emilie Yam, SPLC staff writer