North Central Michigan College inquiry of Line 5 scuffle costs $66K
Last June, during a guest lecture event in Petoskey featuring an Enbridge Energy spokesman, a melee broke out between the North Central Michigan College staff and a group of protesters.
Videos that surfaced afterward showed the two groups scuffling with a banner that read “Enbridge Out! No Line 5" before the protesters were pushed out of a room in the college's library.
The incident sparked concern with NCMC faculty who requested an inquiry into the behavior of the school’s President David Finley, who was involved in the fray, in a letter sent to the Board of Trustees.
The trustees complied, eventually hiring a leading Grand Rapids-based law firm to look into it.
According to invoices obtained by the Record-Eagle and Interlochen Public Radio through the Freedom of Information Act, the investigation took nearly five months to complete and cost the college more than $66,000.
In a report, investigators conclude Finley and three other college personnel who were involved did not "assault" the protesters by forcing them out of the room.
Investigators also said the college's actions did not violate the First Amendment because the event was ticketed and set aside as a "limited public forum."
The confrontation occurred June 22 at a ticketed NCMC Luncheon Lecture Series event featuring Enbridge Community Engagement Manager Paul Meneghini, who was invited to present on the planned Great Lakes Tunnel Project beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
The tunnel would encase Line 5 — Enbridge’s 70-year-old dual pipelines that move crude oil and natural gas liquids along the Straits of Mackinac, and across the U.S.-Canada border. Both the pipeline and the project are flashpoints for a number of groups concerned about the environmental impact to the Straits, tribal sovereignty and safety. Enbridge said the project will cost about $500 million.
As Meneghini presented, protesters interrupted with a banner and chanted “No Line 5,” before they were pushed out of the room by a group of people that included audience members and NCMC staff.
One video, recorded by event attendee Ed Timm, shows the scene from the audience.
Some protesters later said the altercation resulted in minor injuries. Police reportedly arrived after the scuffle and issued a trespassing warning. No charges were filed from either party at the time.
After seeing video and media reports, NCMC’s Faculty Association requested a neutral third-party conduct an inquiry into the incident and that Finley be placed on administrative leave in the meantime.
The motion to seek an investigating firm with the help of the Michigan Community College Association was passed behind closed doors during a special meeting July 14. The board did not put Finley on leave.
According to emails obtained by the Record-Eagle and Interlochen Public Radio, the NCMC Board of Trustees selected Varnum LLP about a month after the incident.
"The lead investigator has had experience working with community colleges, in similar types of issues," NCMC Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Rasmussen told IPR. "So we've we figured that prior experience and experience within the realm of this specific setting was valuable for for getting the best result possible."
The investigation aimed to answer two questions: Whether President Finley or any college personnel violated NCMC policies and whether a violation of First Amendment rights occurred at the lecture.
Varnum first reviewed written policies from the NCMC Employee Handbook before learning of actions taken by the college before the event.
According to the report, "The College received several e-mail communications and contacts from members of the public who oppose the College's decision to host the event."
In response, the college reached out to the Petoskey Police Department and requested police presence on campus for June 22. It also designated a concrete circle near Harris Gardens for protesters to demonstrate at the recommendation of the Petoskey Public Safety Director.
The college also made the decision to not sell tickets for the event at the door, instead closing online registration June 20. One member of the protester group had signed up for the event, but was put on a waitlist.
The protester group interrupted a few minutes after the event began, the report said. Among them were John Woodward, Holden Day, Matthew Villa and two other unnamed members — all hailing from the Detroit and Kalamazoo areas.
Among the college personnel who had contact with protesters were President Finley; Charlie MacInnis, the lead volunteer organizer for the Luncheon Lecture series; Dean of Corporate and Community Education Christy Lyons; and Dean of Career & Technical Education James Cousino.
A play-by-play of events during the June 22 lecture is provided in the full report.
Investigators interviewed members of the NCMC staff and the protester group, along with 23 audience members.
The report noted 16 audience members said they felt the NCMC staff's response was appropriate.
"I felt the actions of Charlie [MacInnis] and the other people were appropriate," one person listed as "Audience Member T" said. "I would have called security instead. I don't know if they have security or where they would have been."
Four others said the staff's response was inappropriate. "Audience Member M" called the protester's removal "completely inappropriate and excessive."
Two other audience members said they felt "mixed" on who was at fault.
In his interview with investigators, Finley said he was impacted by recent events, including the Feb. 13, 2023, shooting at Michigan State University that killed three students and injured five others.
"I did not want the situation to escalate," Finley told investigators. "Some of the audience members got into the fray. I wanted to restore order. I wanted to protect the audience members who were threatened."
In interviews with the group of protesters, investigators asked about injuries they sustained from being forced out of the room, including scratches and bruises.
All of the protesters described feeling "scared" and that their removal from the event was an "assault" when they were trying to express First Amendment rights.
Results of investigation
According to investigators, Finley, Lyons and Cousino all had "reason to believe their actions were necessary for the safety of those in the audience." No disciplinary action was recommended for them.
However, investigators found that Charlie MacInnis did violate college policy when he took a protester's face in his hands and turned her toward him, asking her to leave.
"We further do not question whether Mr. MacInnis honestly believed his actions were necessary," the investigators wrote. "However, with respect to Group Member 5, we do not find that preponderance of the evidence supports that his action in turning her face was 'reasonable.'"
Varnum investigators recommended corrective action for MacInnis, but noted that they would not consider his violation to be "egregious."
MacInnis told IPR and the Record-Eagle that his actions were "appropriate to protect the people in the room."
He said he and other staff members began online training sessions this week on how to deal with intrusions and threats on college campuses.
"I have never encountered anything of this nature at all in my entire life, and was attempting to protect the people inside from an unknown assailant with intentions that were completely mysterious," MacInnis said.
On the question of whether a First Amendment violation had occurred, investigators reviewed case law and college policy and found no violation.
Investigators wrote, because the event was ticketed and set "reasonable rules and regulations of speech" within the room, the Luncheon Lecture event is classified as a "limited public forum."
According to the report, even though the protesters were not told where to find the designated protest area, the policy was made available online.
Varnum investigators billed NCMC for their work in two installments equalling $66,171.28.
Finley said the investigation bill exceeds the legal fees fund in the school's annual operating budget and will "impact other areas of the budget" in 2024.
"Yes, it's expensive," Rasmussen said. "But we also wanted to make sure that the investigation was done independently, and it was done objectively, and it was done right."
The board presented the findings at its Nov. 29 meeting but, according to a staff member, the meeting minutes weren't posted to the board's website until Jan. 23 "due to the holidays."
While the investigation did not indicate any violations of First Amendment rights, the report offered recommendations for NCMC to better prepare for similar events in the future. These included requiring pre-registration, periodically reviewing and training staff on Freedom of Assembly policy, and increasing security at events.
Rasmussen and Finley both said the college intends to implement all of these recommendations.
"I hope that we've all – and that includes our team here – learned from the incident," Finley said. "I'll say I know we have."
The protester group's attorney Holly T. Bird declined to comment until she has reviewed the report with her clients.
Enbridge Energy did not respond to requests for comment, but said in the aftermath of the June 22 incident that it "recognizes the rights of people to express their views legally and peacefully, and to discuss Enbridge’s business and projects. We encourage active discussions about our operations and projects, as long as everyone is respectful of one another and non-violent.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Charlie MacInnis is a former member of the IPR Community Advisory Council.