First Amendment advocacy group Speech First has taken the University of Michigan to court over their “highly subjective” policies regarding free speech and bias response. The group has pledged “to help restore free speech and expression to America’s universities.”
The U of M speech code prohibits “harassment” and “bullying,” and there are higher penalties for actions motivated by “bias.” These terms, of course, are all highly subjective. For example, “harassment” is defined as “unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual.” A bias response team is tasked with investigating and punishing the allegations. In the last year, there have been 150 of these investigations.
According to the University, “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” A student may be disciplined unless he or she agrees to “restorative justice,” “individualized education,” or “unconscious bias training.” This has meant that students are afraid to speak out on most important issues.
In a press release, Speech First said:
Speech First asserts that the lack of clear and meaningful standards in both the school’s speech code and bias response system present a serious risk that it will be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner and may be used to target speech based on a speaker’s viewpoint. In addition, the subjective nature of both defining and enforcing “bias incidents” through the bias response team renders the program functionally unconstitutional.
“Speech codes like Michigan’s flagrantly violate the First Amendment,” said Speech First President Nicole Neily. “Moreover, a bias response system has no place in America, much less on a modern-day college campus. Because it’s impossible to know what comments might be ‘perceived’ by others as offensive, students don’t contribute to conversations and debates, ask questions, write papers, or invite speakers they might otherwise. This is not a real educational experience, and Michigan students deserve better.”
Nicole Neily, president and founder of Speech First calls the speech code “fundamentally un-American.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Jillian Melchoir filed a public records request for Michigan’s Bias Response team files, but was prevented when the university charged $2,400. However, she reports:
The (BRT) log shows that in one reported incident of verbal bias in the classroom, the Bias Response Team said it referred a university employee to administrators who “shared concerns with the academic department involved.” In several other cases, the Bias Response Team determined that some reported acts of verbal bias could constitute sex discrimination.
Other campus organizations are speaking out in support. Cabot Phillips, media director of Campus Reform told Fox News:
The university punishes students based on how controversial or offensive their words are. Well, by nature, the most controversial ideas will be the ones that are least present, and in college campuses it’s overwhelmingly conservative ideas that are not present, so it’s going to be conservative students that are facing the brunt of this. Any student, it doesn’t matter political affiliation, no student should have to fear bringing up ideas that may make people a little uncomfortable.
Speech First is asking that the university’s speech code be declared unconstitutional and put a stop to the bias response system.