Lawsuit takes on University of Michigan's 'Bias Response Team'

A free speech legal group called Speech First filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the University of Michigan. The lawsuit claims the university’s “Bias Response Team” is investigating and punishing constitutionally protected speech based on little more than the feelings of students who claim to be offended. From the Wall Street Journal:

‘The most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” the University of Michigan advises students. It then urges them to report on their peers, anonymously if they prefer, “and to encourage others to report if they have been the target or witness of a bias incident.”

The Bias Response Team is there, ready to investigate and mete out justice. More than 200 American campuses have established similar administrative offices to handle alleged acts of “bias” that violate no law….

Students found responsible for a “bias incident” face discipline, which ranges from training sessions to suspension or expulsion. As for what constitutes bias, that’s vague—unconstitutionally so, argues Speech First. The existence of an offended party can be sufficient to prove “bias.” The team warns potential offenders that bias “may be intentional or unintentional.” Similarly, the student code prohibits “harassment,” which it defines as “unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning or bothersome to an individual.” Here, subjective perception serves as evidence.

What if the expression of a controversial or unpopular opinion bothers someone? Under the University of Michigan’s rules, “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak,” Speech First says. Since April 2017, students have reported more than 150 bias incidents. These include complaints about social-media posts, drawings, comments, phone calls and even “intentional item placement”—whatever that means. The Bias Response Team has also investigated speech or other expression even when it occurred off-campus.

So to sum this up, anonymous students are encouraged to report their peers for anything that makes them feel bad, even it was unintentional. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, one that empowers whatever campus snowflake is most eager to claim victimization. That prospect can’t help but result in students who are afraid to speak up about any issue on which they might hold an unapproved thought. Indeed, Speech First is arguing a chilling of free speech has already taken hold on campus:

In light of these policies, Speech First members enrolled at Michigan have abstained from speaking on topics including immigration, identity politics, and abortion because they fear their speech will be anonymously reported as offensive, biased, and/or hateful to university authorities through the bias response system. The complaint alleges that these hopelessly vague policies chill student speech and expression – a clear First Amendment violation…

“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.”

If the lawsuit is successful, it could become a model for similar suits against other schools that have set up bias response teams. Just to give you an idea who some of these students are, last October a group of them attempted to “no-platform” invited speaker Charles Murray. One person shouting over the rest claimed Murray was “killing us” and compared his speech to “ethnic cleansing.” I wonder if this event was reported to the Bias Response Team for investigation.

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