ACLU of Michigan invokes Westboro Baptist Church ruling in letter that urges specific revisions to University of Michigan policy
Referencing the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the free speech rights of Westboro Baptist Church members, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has encouraged the University of Michigan to implement a new trespass policy that protects individual rights, especially free speech.
The ACLU first raised concerns over the policy after an Oct. 24 AnnArbor.com report highlighted the university’s banishment of Andrew Shirvell, the former state assistant attorney general, and others, from the 3,300-acre campus. Shirvell, a Michigan alumnus, had, for months, protested what he deemed the “radical homosexual agenda” of the school’s openly gay student body president, including a one-man, late-night protest on the sidewalk outside of the student’s off-campus home in Ann Arbor. Campus police initially banned him for life.
In its March 2 8-1 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court set the bar high for what constitutes as disruptive speech that can be regulated, the letter notes, affirming Westboro members right to hold signs on sidewalks such as “Thank G-d for dead soldiers” outside of funerals.
Invoking the court’s decision as it relates to the banishment of Shirvell, the ACLU letter to Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman says the country has chosen “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure we do not stifle public debate.”
Subsequent documents and interviews obtained by AnnArbor.com showed the university has banned roughly 2,050 individuals for life from the public campus in the last decade without apprising any of those individuals with a written reason why they were banned. Those banned include individuals charged with crimes or those who had been in university buildings after hours, but also staff, alumni and students, such as an Indiana doctor and alumnus who received a life-long ban from his alma mater after shouting at other fans over seating during a football game.
Under the current policy, only the chief of police can appeal a “trespass warning.” Those who violate the trepass policy could be arrested or fined.
Coleman announced the university's plans to revise the policy in a Nov. 24, 2010 letter to the univeristy student ACLU group. Earlier that month, the ACLU of Michigan had alluded to the threat of a lawsuit unless the school revisited its policy, while the student group also urged changes via letter.
The March 4 letter from the ACLU applauds the university’s decision to revise the policy, highlights what it characterizes as alarming ways it can be used to infringe an individual’s free speech rights and offers specific ways U-M could revise the policy to keep campus safe while protecting rights.
Michigan has received the letter, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said, and is working to revise the policy.
But that might not be enough for some.
In February, State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, and herself a U-M alumnus, said the university’s use of the policy might warrant more oversight of campus police departments statewide. Warren announced plans to introduce legislation addressing her concerns.