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Some fear University of Michigan proposed policy on protests could quell free speech efforts

A University of Michigan proposal aimed at deterring disruptions on its Ann Arbor campus after anti-Israel protesters interrupted an honors convocation is sparking backlash from free speech advocates.

Violations of the policy, which has yet to be implemented, could result in suspension or expulsion for students and termination for university staff.

The March 24 protest by groups calling for the school to divest from companies linked to Israel is among a number of demonstrations on college campuses across the United States in which students and organizations have taken sides — in support of Palestinians or of Israel — as Israel continues its 6-month-long war in Gaza against Hamas.

University of Michigan President Santo Ono said in a letter to the campus community that the protesters who disrupted the annual honors undergraduate graduation ceremony “brought profound disappointment to students, parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives and friends.”

“We all must understand that, while protest is valued and protected, disruptions are not,” Ono wrote. “One group’s right to protest does not supersede the right of others to participate in a joyous event.”

“It was painful for everyone who had gathered — and especially so for members of our Jewish community,” Ono added.

The Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas left 1,200 people, mostly civilians, dead. Militants took roughly 250 people hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel’s response to the attack has been devastating. Bombardments and ground offensives have killed more than 33,600 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded over 76,200, the Gaza Health Ministry says. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tally but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

The war has ignited a humanitarian catastrophe. Most of the territory’s population has been displaced, and with vast swaths of Gaza’s urban landscape leveled in the fighting, many areas are uninhabitable.

Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, which calls itself a Palestinian solidarity group, posted on social media that students shut down the University of Michigan convocation to demand the school divest from Israel and “war profiteers facilitating genocide.”

The Associated Press left emails this week seeking comment from organizers of the protest.

Some University of Michigan students walked out of classes on April 4, protesting the school’s ties to Israel and the planned policy, which, among other things, would prohibit disrupting speakers or performers. Students violating the policy could face reprimand, disciplinary probation, restitution, removal from a specific course, suspension or expulsion.

Staff members violating the policy could face misconduct allegations, and the school “may institute discipline, up to and including termination.”

The policy, if enacted as is, would apply to all students, employees, contractors, volunteers and visitors who engage in disruptive activity.

“We will not shy away from protecting the values we hold dear,” Ono wrote in a follow-up letter to the campus community. “Those who participate in disruptive activity will be held accountable.”

Michigan sophomore Annabel Bean said the school appears to be trying to limit and repress student protests.

“The guidelines are just really a huge overstep I think in my opinion,” Bean told WXYZ-TV. “The point of a protest is to be disruptive and if you’re saying it can’t be disruptive, then we’re not protesting, and how are you honoring your history of disruptive student protests?”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan said it is concerned the proposed policy, as drafted, will impair civil liberties on campus.

“We believe the proposed policy is vague and overbroad, and risks chilling a substantial amount of free speech and expression,” the ACLU Michigan said in a letter to Ono. “We recognize that the university has an interest in carrying out its operations without major disruptions; however, in attempting to achieve that goal, the proposed policy sacrifices far too much.”

The university is reviewing comments from the community to ensure any new policy reflects the school’s mission and values, Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs Colleen Mastony said in an email.

“The university will not rush the development of this new policy,” Mastony said. “We will ensure all voices have an opportunity to be heard. Our goal is to make policies clearer, ensure key terms are well defined, incorporate pathways for restorative action, and support respectful discussion of divergent viewpoints.”

As it reads now, the proposed policy lacks clarity, said Thomas Braun, a biostatistics professor.

“For faculty, who are not on the tenured track or not tenured, the worry is this overreaching policy … it’s unclear what sanctions can be given to faculty,” said Braun, adding that there is fear of being denied tenure “because of something you participated in.”

Braun, who also is chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, said there always is a debate on the school’s campus regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

“I can support free speech and still be for one side or the other,” he said. “This issue has made it very clear to me that I have been oblivious to the experiences of the Palestinians in Gaza. At the same time, I can’t think I can condone the entire removal of Israel as a state. How does a campus deal with its own turmoil around this issue, while at the same time being asked to solve the world’s issues?”


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