Michigan Supreme Court strikes down university's rule against 'disrupting' employees

MICHIGAN — A Michigan State University ordinance that was used to convict a law student for disrupting a parking enforcement employee has been struck down as unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.In a “5-2 decision”:http://www.splc.org/pdf/rapp.pdf July 27, the court held that the ordinance — which made it a criminal offense to “disrupt the normal activity” of certain people at the university — was overbroad and infringed on free speech rights.The case stems from a 2008 incident, when then-law student Jared Rapp found a parking ticket on his car in a school parking lot. According to court documents, Rapp sought out the employee who issued the ticket, yelling at him and demanding to know his name.As the parking employee, Ricardo Rego, sat in his truck filling out paperwork, Rapp stood outside the vehicle and took photos of Rego with a cellphone.While the parking ticket was ultimately dismissed, a district court jury found Rapp violated a university ordinance that “no person shall disrupt the normal activity” of any person or agency “carrying out a service, activity or agreement for or with the university.”Among other things, Rapp was sentenced to two years of probation and 80 hours of community service.Rapp then decided to challenge the MSU ordinance on constitutional grounds. A circuit court overturned the conviction on the basis that the ordinance criminalized a substantial amount of protected speech. However, the state appellate court later reversed that finding, upholding the ordinance.Friday’s opinion marked yet another reversal in the case.In a statement, the university said it is “reviewing the decision with an eye toward what changes are needed to ensure the ordinance meets the Court’s ruling.”Rapp’s attorney, Nick Bostic, said he was “very pleased, but not surprised at all, with the ruling.”“To have an issue upheld by the state Supreme Court that you tried to get a district court judge to hear four years ago is very gratifying,” he said.Although the opinion did not center on a student speech issue, Justice Diane Hathaway distinguished the case from those that have addressed the constitutional rights of minors in public schools.“Despite the fact that the MSU ordinance criminalizes constitutionally protected conduct, the dissent asserts that the ordinance is valid because ‘a university can implement measures to prevent disruptions of the academic environment.’ The dissent cites Tinker and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,” she wrote in a footnote in the majority opinion. “However, those cases do not support the dissent’s position, [since] both Tinker and Kuhlmeier involved the constitutional rights of minors in public schools.”The rejection of both Tinker and Hazelwood at the college level stands in contrast to a recent trend in which courts have applied those high school speech standards at colleges and universities.Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, applauded the decision.“This was a very protective opinion of student speech at the college level and a very encouraging one,” he said.LoMonte cautioned, however, that a court might look differently on student speech that takes place in a campus parking lot, as was the case in Friday’s opinion, versus speech that takes place in a more academic environment.“If you truly had a case of in-class disruptive behavior, you might find that the court would apply a reduced level of First Amendment protection,” he said.In the dissent, Justice Brian Zahra argued that the context of an academic environment should allow officials to impose stricter standards for regulating student speech.“Just as picketing outside courthouses, disruptive rallies within libraries and speech that disrupts the workplace can be constitutionally prohibited, a university can implement measures to prevent disruptions of the academic environment,” he wrote. “Even campus newspapers are not entitled to the same degree of free speech as the Lansing State Journal because of the particular mission of the university.”Unless MSU asks the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Friday’s ruling will be final.By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer