The University of Michigan has adopted a statement of principles on diversity of thought and free speech that is “guided by the letter and spirit of the First Amendment” and remains “entirely consistent with our commitment to nurturing a diverse, equitable and inclusive community.”
The Board of Regents voted Jan. 16 to approve the “Principles on Diversity of Thought and Freedom of Expression” to make it clear that “as a great public university … we enthusiastically embrace our responsibility to stimulate and support diverse ideas and model constructive engagement with different viewpoints.”
President Santa J. Ono introduced the measure, which was first made public as a draft in October.
“Open inquiry and spirited debate are critical for promoting discovery and creativity, for creating and advancing knowledge, and for preparing our students to be informed and actively engaged in our democracy,” he said.
“At this time of great division, it is more important than ever that we come together in a shared commitment to pluralism, to mutual respect and to freedom of speech and diversity of thought at this great public university.”
Regent Mark J. Bernstein described the new principles as “the north star of our university that sits next to our mission statement.”
“We are a public university with a long and proud history of robust engagement on issues of great societal consequence,” Bernstein said. “Every member of our academic community should expect to confront ideas that differ from their own, however uncomfortable these encounters may be. This can only occur when diversity of viewpoints exists and freedom of expression flourishes.”
Board of Regents Chair Sarah Hubbard described the principles as a “first step” toward encouraging balanced debate at U-M. “Now we need to invite diverse thought leaders to our campus in order to fulfill the promise of this policy,” she said.
Regent Ron Weiser cited portions of the principles that allow for protestors to disagree but not disrupt presentations.
“It’s really important that we realize that the university is about talking to each other and understanding there’s going to be differences of opinion and viewpoints on many, many subjects,” he said.
The university sought comments on the draft statement and those comments helped to inform the final document. Timothy G. Lynch, vice president and general counsel, shepherded the process of developing and refining the statement.
Lynch expressed his deep gratitude to the faculty committee that worked on various drafts of the principles.
“Our committee discussions quickly coalesced on important themes and issues. Our discussions also reflected differing perspectives that made the final product that much better,” said Lynch, who also thanked the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs’ General Counsel Advisory Committee for its important advice over the course of multiple meetings.
The faculty committee included:
- Michelle Adams, Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law and professor of law, Law School.
- Kristina Daugirdas, Francis A. Allen Collegiate Professor of Law and professor of law, Law School.
- Don Herzog, Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law and professor of law, Law School; and professor of political science, LSA.
- Gabe Mendlow, professor of law, Law School; and professor of philosophy, LSA.
- Chandra Sripada, Theophile Raphael Research Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and professor of psychiatry, Medical School; and professor of philosophy, LSA
Lynch said the now-adopted principles expand upon U-M’s commitment to freedom of speech as articulated in its longstanding policy adopted in 1988, Standard Practice Guide 601.01, which remains in effect.
Now Lynch will assemble a panel to recommend ways to put the principles into practice across the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses, and to continuously engage and educate the ever-changing community about what it means to “meet conflict and controversy with understanding and reason, refuting our opponents rather than revoking invitations or refusing them a platform, and contesting ideas instead of attacking their character.”
“These values are particularly important during times of great conflict,” he said. “The university has articulated where it wants our community to be, and the decision today by the board is a tremendously important step.”
Regent Denise Ilitch expressed her appreciation for the community input from faculty, staff, students and alumni that helped shape the final principles.
“At the University of Michigan, we have a rich tradition of intellectual rigor and innovation. Free speech on campus is really a value of ours,” Ilitch said. “It’s our legacy, and it allows for a strong exchange of ideas and perspectives that drive academic and personal growth. Free speech is at our core.”
Regent Jordan B. Acker encouraged members of the university community to embrace the new principles. “It’s incumbent on all of us as leaders … to not just have the affirmative right to allow speech that differs from your own, but to encourage it, and to make sure that we continue to allow it,” he said.
The final phase of this process will include the appointment of a second committee — made up of faculty members, students and staff — charged with examining the extent to which the university community is living up to the principles. This group also will make specific recommendations on what the university can and should be doing better. The goal is to make further adjustments before the start of the next academic year in August 2024.
The statement recognizes that, at times, “free inquiry and expression can offend,” and makes it clear all ideas are not equal and there are limits to free speech.
“Not all ideas are of equal value. That is precisely why they must be subject to intense scrutiny and thoughtful debate,” the statement said. “Our deep commitment to free expression does not extend to speech or conduct that violates the law or university policy, including targeted speech that constitutes bullying, defamation, destruction of property, discrimination, harassment, violence, or threats.”