Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Michigan House Republicans Threaten Academic Freedom

The Michigan House of Representatives is planning to vote next week on the higher education appropriations bill, which includes this frightening provision:

Sec. 273a. It is the intent of the legislature that a public university that receives funds in section 236 shall not collaborate in any manner with a nonprofit worker center whose documented activities include coercion through protest, demonstration, or organization against a Michigan business.

The aim of this legislation is to target the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, which had picketed and sued a restaurant it accused of mistreating workers. Because a social work graduate student at the University of Michigan chose to do a field placement with the organization, the Michigan Restaurant Association lobbied its Republican friends in the state legislature.

But the real target of this legislation is academic freedom, in a sleazy attempt to try to banish colleges from having any contact with activist groups disliked by certain legislators.

According to the Lansing State Journal, State Rep. Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck), chair of the higher education subcommittee “said he’s apprehensive about giving students credit for working with organizations 'that will ill affect Michigan businesses.'” It's a clear example of conservative bias: pro-business organizations are to be praised, while organizations critical of any business are to be banned from any connection with a public college.

I emailed Rep. Genetski, asking for him to comment on this legislation and what he interprets its language to mean. So far, I have received no response.

But the wording of this legislation is particularly odd. First of all, it bans the act to “collaborate” with any such group. What, exactly, is a collaboration? Would any voluntary activity by students or faculty count? Would allowing a member of this organization to speak on campus be a collaboration?

The legislation targets any group whose activities include “coercion through protest, demonstration, or organization.” But this literally makes no sense, because there's nothing inherently coercive about a protest or demonstration, and certainly not by organizing. Pickets, protests, and similar organizing are all voluntary activities. So even if this legislation is approved, a public college could not ban collaboration with such a group unless coercion had been proven, which cannot be possible. Considering that no one has alleged illegal activity (and the legislation says nothing about it), the entire legislative language is self-contradictory, and any college that took action to ban a labor organization from campus would not only be violating the First Amendment, it would be violating this bizarre language as well.

Although the Michigan legislature is clearly lacking in English majors (and good lawyers who understand the meaning of the First Amendment), the message of all this is clear. It's an attempt at coercion. Actual coercion, imposed by the government. It's an effort to violate academic freedom by pressuring colleges to remove from campus anyone deemed too critical of corporate America, with the threat of government stepping in to cut funding if they fail to censor left-wingers (hence, the inclusion of the provision in an appropriations resolution).

Todd Gitlin calls it “the demeaning of academic freedom in Michigan,” and everyone, conservative and liberal alike, should speak out against the attempt of big government to engage in thought policing on campus against someone deemed too critical of business. They should contact legislators (see a list here) to remove this attack on free speech on campus. Faculty, staff, and students at Michigan colleges should issue formal invitations to the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, asking the organization to come speak on campus about working conditions in the restaurant industry, and invite Michigan Restaurant Association and the legislators they lobby to come speak about academic freedom and why they oppose it.

Academic freedom is too essential to be subjected to attacks by corporate lobbyists.

Crossposted at DailyKos.

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