DETROIT  The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter today urging the University of Michigan to amend its written policy banning students from campaigning for political causes and elections within the residence halls. The letter was signed by representatives of the ACLU of Michigan as well as the U-M undergraduate and law school ACLU chapters and the Washtenaw County ACLU. Read the letter here.

“In the spirit of advancing the free exchange of ideas and protecting the values of academic freedom, we urge the University of Michigan to adopt a policy that honors students’ free speech rights,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “The right to discuss the most important political questions of this generation is a fundamental right, and nowhere should it be more cherished and protected than at our universities."

According to the student manual, the University only allows political candidates to canvass in the dorms and makes an exception for non-partisan voter registration drives. During the 2008 presidential campaign, when the College Democrats raised constitutional questions about the policy, the University allowed students to canvass in their own residence hall.

However, the University never amended its written policy after the 2008 election. Additionally, it recently sent out an email to dorm residents in connection with the Michigan Student Assembly elections suggesting that it will only permit candidates to campaign in the dorms.

“The dialogue that we share with our neighbors and peers makes the University a vibrant, stimulating community,” said Bennett Stein of the U-M Undergraduate ACLU chapter. “The current policy infringed upon our rights as students in 2008 and, if not changed immediately, will prove equally detrimental to campaign efforts in 2010.”

The University housing code states that students who violate the no-canvassing policy could be charged with criminal trespass and excluded from any university residence hall. If a student organization violates this policy, it can be fined any amount determined by the Housing Administration.

“College is, for many, the first chance to vote and the first chance to engage in the democratic process,” said Andrew Selbst, co-chair of the U-M Law School ACLU Chapter. “Instead of censoring core political speech, the administration should be encouraging lifelong civic engagement by allowing students to experience the political process for themselves.”

In its letter, the ACLU asked to meet with University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and her staff to develop a policy that explicitly allows students to speak with other students door-to-door in the residence halls about elections and other political causes.