Michigan College holds in-person commencement, defying Whitmer, AG Nessel

Hillsdale College in Michigan held a in-person commencement ceremony that appears to have defied Governor Whitmer’s order.

Per DailyCaller, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office “reiterated Thursday organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited in the part of the state where Hillsdale College is located under an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” according to The Detroit News.

However, Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker told The News that his department would not enforce Whitmer’s order in this case and has not done so the entirety of the pandemic.

In a Press Release, Hillsdale College justified their actions by citing Whitmer’s own participation in an outside rally.

Video from June 4th.

“This unique event is deserving of unique legal treatment,” said Robert Norton, Vice President and General Counsel for Hillsdale College. “It is consistent with the governor’s executive orders providing that you can have these outdoor First Amendment expressive events subject to CDC guidelines. The governor took part in one herself (which did not comply with CDC guidelines), and afterwards, her spokesperson said that was an appropriate thing for the governor to do because it had been an expressive First Amendment event. We agree.”

Hillsdale College communicated with state officials, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, about commencement more than one month prior to the event.

The College also reached out to local officials. Hillsdale County’s prosecutor Neal Brady independently concluded in writing that Hillsdale College’s commencement ceremony is entirely appropriate under Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-110. Although that order restricts the size of certain outdoor gatherings, it makes clear that “nothing in th[e] order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances,” including the rights to free speech, assembly, association, and academic freedom secured by the First Amendment.

The Detroit News reports Hillsdale College held its in-person commencement ceremony Saturday night, defying Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose office earlier this week called the celebration illegal.

The event concluded three days’ worth of festivities including dinners, cocktails, senior music recitals and a party on the quad.

The activities took place as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Michigan and around the country. The state reported 678 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Saturday, bringing the weekly case total to 4,232 — the highest total since the week of May 17, when 3,861 cases were reported.

At some events, attendees were seated six feet apart and were asked not to walk around. The college required everyone to wear a mask, handing them out for free at entrances. The college also took guests’ temperatures.

Christian Betz, a 2020 graduate from Rockford who brought his family to the commencement ceremony, said he felt the college took the necessary precautions to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

Betz said while the college communicated that it would enforce proper social distancing and mask-wearing, he wasn’t sure the students would be on board, but he was happily surprised.

“Students were wearing the masks,” he said. “(Hillsdale President Larry) Arnn’s speech during the first dinner talked about how this was our duty to protect one another, and for us to be able to come together, we have to be responsible.”

Betz’s mother, Jennie, emphasized the specific safety measures taken by the college.

“They have checkpoints and check-ins to make sure people have not been exposed; they’re taking temperatures; they’re advising that guests have to wear a mask,” she said. “I think those are great things.”

Betz’s father, David, said the decision to bring his family to commencement was an easy one. “COVID obviously was a concern,” he said. “For a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to come, it was well worth it.”

Another 2020 graduate, Arena Lewis, brought her father, two aunts, cousins, a grandmother and a former elementary school teacher to commencement.

Lewis said Hillsdale’s approach to commencement was even stricter than she expected.

“I hardly ever see kids without masks on,” she said. I think everyone’s being very compliant and obeying out of Christian charity and love for everyone else. I think that’s what we’re called to do, protect each other.”

“They’re all from New Mexico,” she said of her family, “but it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Nessel’s office reiterated Thursday organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited in the part of the state where Hillsdale College is located under an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker told The Detroit News his office has not enforced any of the governor’s orders during this pandemic and does not intend to do so now. Parker said they wouldn’t enforce orders or ticket attendees at Hillsdale’s event, adding that it isn’t the community’s top priority right now.

Robert Norton, vice president and general counsel for Hillsdale College, described the lengthy steps it went through to ensure the legality of its event.

In a press release, Norton said the college believes its ceremony fully complies with the order thanks to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, referencing a specific sentence in Whitmer’s order: “Nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances.”

Since the beginning, Norton said, Whitmer has made it clear that “outdoor, first amendment expressive activities,” like spontaneous protests, were exempt from the order.

Arnn notified both the governor’s office as well as Hillsdale County prosecutor Neal Brady in June of the event, according to the release.