Responding to the Bias Response Team
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently promised to be “vigilant” in defending free-speech rights on campus, and last week the Justice Department followed through by scoring the University of Michigan for chilling speech.
Justice filed a statement of interest, similar to an amicus brief, siding with Speech First, a nonprofit that has sued the school on behalf of its student members. Justice says the university’s policies and practices “ban a broad swath of core protected speech based solely on ‘listeners’ reaction.’”
Speech First’s lawsuit takes issue with the university’s student code, which prohibits bullying and harassment but with only vague definitions of both. The university also operates a Bias Response Team, to which students can submit complaints accusing peers and professors of “bias incidents” that violate no law.
University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Speech First and Justice have “seriously misstated University of Michigan policy and painted a false portrait of speech on our campus.” The university hasn’t filed its legal response, so there’s “little more we can add at this point,” Mr. Fitzgerald told us last Wednesday.
But lo, last Monday the university updated the student code’s definitions of harassment and bullying, bringing them in line with Michigan state law. That decision “was accelerated” by the lawsuit, Mr. Fitzgerald admitted on the university website. The school also took down a web page in which the Dean of Students Office promoted the Bias Response Team and advised students that “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”
Justice’s statement says Michigan’s “failure to bind itself to controlling definitions” of terms like bullying and harassment “effects ‘an unrestricted delegation of power’ to University officials” and “opens up precisely the risk of ‘arbitrary, discriminatory and overzealous enforcement’ that the First Amendment forbids.” The “reduction of ‘bias incidents’ to the listener’s ‘own feelings’ . . . likewise violates the First Amendment because it is not ‘based on speech at all’ but on ‘a listener’s reaction to speech,’” Justice wrote.
This is the first time the federal government has weighed in on Bias Response Teams, but more than 200 universities have similar administrative offices. The Justice Department’s statement puts these other universities on notice. Oh, and Speech First is accepting new student members.