A student rights organization says that Western Michigan University has several unclear policies that could lead to administrative abuse and unfair restriction of free speech on campus.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a student rights organization that assesses First Amendment rights on University Campuses, rated WMU as a Yellow Light campus in its assessment of the university's policies as of 2019. The organization rates universities on a Green-Yellow-Red Light scale, assessing their policies for possible infractions on students' right to free speech.
According FIRE's summary of WMU, "Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application."
FIRE's description of its rating scale notes that Yellow Light schools either have policies that do not explicitly infringe upon student rights but are vague and may lead to infringement via abuse or have policies that do explicitly infringe but do so only in an extremely limited way.
The policies that FIRE noted as having potential for abuse are WMU's bullying, internet usage and sexual harassment policies as well as the university's policy on posting and distributing written materials on campus. WMU's outdoor space policy, as a specific policy, is rated as Green Light as is the university's advertised commitment to free speech.
With a Yellow Light rating, WMU is comparable to most other public universities in the state, including Central Michigan University and Michigan State University. Michigan Tech and the University of Michigan are outliers with Green Light and Red Light ratings respectively.
Dr. Suzie Nagel-Bennett, WMU's dean of students, said that the university is committed to supporting free speech and dialogue and that the First Amendment and diversity are the foundations of democracy.
"I believe free speech and diversity and inclusion are not mutually exclusive. Rather, both are central to the mission of the University. While there may be tension between the two at times, it is incumbent upon us to provide a safe and secure place for such robust discourse," she said, commenting on the potential need for the university to balance free speech with other concerns in its policies.
FIRE previously was involved in providing assistance to the plaintiffs in a 2014 lawsuit against the university. The lawsuit was filed after the university demanded that the Kalamazoo Peace Center, a RSO, pay for security to have activist and rapper Boots Riley speak on campus. Riley would end up speaking at the Wesley House instead.
After this, FIRE continued to pursue the university insisting that its claim to have not paid damages in the lawsuit was misleading. Fire also argued that the changes made by the university in the wake of the suit were inadequate, saying that the policies enacted were difficult for students to find. After FIRE created an online countdown to bring attention to the case, WMU updated its website to make the policies more easily accessible.