November 1, 2019
The University of Michigan agreed in a legal settlement Monday to never again employ a Bias Response Team to investigate students for alleged “bullying” or “harassment” – a practice that chilled the free speech rights of conservative students on campus.
This landmark victory for free expression means the @UMich can no longer intentionally chill student speech while ignoring the guaranteed protections of the First Amendment. https://t.co/txbWn4bAnT #FreeSpeech! #1A
— Speech First (@Speech_First) October 30, 2019
The free speech group Speech First sued U-M in May 2018 on behalf of three unnamed students after university officials launched a Bias Response Team to combat alleged bullying and harassment that led to complaints from conservative students concerned about the loose definitions for misconduct.
Initially, the rules outlawed “bullying” and “harassing” behavior that “annoy[s] persistently,” creates an “unpleasant” situation or “frighten[s]” someone, as well as “unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning or bothersome to an individual,” The College Fix reports.
The BRT defined bias as any incident “that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity,” which was a problem for conservative students regularly mislabeled as racist for their perspective.
Bias incidents are not welcome at U-M. We are committed to creating & maintaining a respectful & welcoming environment for everyone. This image has been reported to the U-M Bias Response Team & we are actively engaging students involved & those affected. https://t.co/BBFupWJd33 pic.twitter.com/vxYGLARgsS
— University of Michigan (@UMich) March 16, 2018
The controversy around the Bias Response Team’s investigations into hundreds of alleged “expressions” of bias came amid heightened political tensions on campus in the wake of President Trump’s 2016 election victory. U-M President Mark Schlissel himself engaged in reportable biased speech when he told students the day after the election that “ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some kind of idealized version of a non-existent yesterday that was expressed during the campaign,” according to The College Fix.
About a month after Speech First sued U-M last year for violating conservative students’ first amendment rights, school officials revised the definitions to include only incidents that include actual harm more aligned with state law, the college news site reports.
Then the university ditched the Bias Response Team entirely, creating a new “Campus Climate Support” program in its place for the current school year.
Regardless, Speech First persisted with its lawsuit and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in support. The university won a brief victory, but a 6th Court of Appeals decision in September kicked off negotiations that led to Monday’s settlement.
Our report found bias response teams at 231 campuses.
42% of these teams involved law enforcement — literal speech police.
That was in 2017, and all indications are that bias response teams and reporting systems have increased in number in the past two years.
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) August 6, 2019
Speech First outlined the agreement in a prepared statement.
U-M “revised its previously unconstitutional definitions of ‘harassment’ and ‘bullying,’ and will never return to the previous definitions in the future. The school has abolished its Bias Response Team, replacing it with a Campus Climate Support program that – in its current guise – does not punish students,” the statement read.
Speech First promised to “sue the school again” if the Campus Climate Support program “is used to chill student speech in the future.”
“This landmark victory for free expression means the University of Michigan can no longer intentionally chill student speech while ignoring the guaranteed protections of the First Amendment,” Speech First wrote. “Thanks to the September 23 decision by the 6th Court of Appeals, schools around the country are now on notice that simply changing a policy during the course of litigation to try and moot their lawsuits will be viewed critically in the future.”
Speech First President Nicole Neily was pretty excited with the outcome.
#Speech First’s victory paves the way for college students who may have been too fearful or intimidated to express their opinions to finally embrace their free speech rights and engage in true academic discourse,” she said.
“While our battle is far from over, we are pleased that the administration will no longer maintain policies that have both the purpose and the effect of chilling student speech.”
This article was posted: Friday, November 1, 2019 at 4:55 am