Campus Free Speech

Report: 2.8 Million Students Attend Universities Where Offensive Speech Is Reported to Bureaucrats or Cops

'Speech police in a quite literal sense'


Federico Marsicano

What is a Bias Response Team? At least 2.8 million students attend a university that maintains one, according to a fascinating new report on the subject by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The report also found something disturbing: 42 percent of the 167 BRTs studied by FIRE include police officers as part of the team. When students at these institutions—many of which were public universities—report speech that offends them to a BRT, they are essentially inviting the cops to violate the free expression rights of other members of campus.

FIRE worries that this arrangement has created "speech police in a quite literal sense." It's not hard to see why the organization—which is dedicated to defending free speech on college campuses—is concerned: many campus BRTs define "bias" in incredibly broad terms. A staggering range of statements and opinions could provoke a response from student conduct officers, university PR officials, and even the cops.

BRTs provide a method for reporting "biased" speech to the authorities using email, or in some cases, a hotline. What counts as bias varies from institution to institution, but often includes hateful speech impugning gender, race, political belief, religion, disability status, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Some institutions embrace even more categories, like "smoker status" (University of Kentucky), "social affiliation" (Syracuse University), or even "body shape" (University of Northern Colorado).

Imagine the deleterious effect this could have on campus debate. For example: If a student mocked another student for joining a fraternity, smoking, and voting for Donald Trump, the student could credibly be accused of perpetrating three different bias incidents—even though it should be perfectly acceptable for a student with a sincere dislike of fraternities, smoking, and Trump to share his beliefs.

We need not consider mere hypotheticals. At the University of Oregon, someone reported a cafeteria poster asking students to clean up after themselves to the BRT because it was "sexist". (The poster presumably said something like, your mother isn't here to do your dishes for you.) A staff member who made "gender-based comments" was referred to Sexual Violence Support services. And the student newspaper's insufficient commitment to transgender issues earned it a talking-to from university officials.

"It is understandable that universities wish to monitor the climate for students on their campuses and to have support systems in place for students who, for one reason or another, may be struggling to feel at home on campus," FIRE's report notes. "But it does not follow from these precepts that universities must effectively establish a surveillance state on campus where students and faculty must guard their every utterance for fear of being reported to and investigated by the administration.

"While not every Bias Response Team impermissibly limits protected speech, the reality is that it is extremely difficult to have a system in place for the reporting of protected speech without creating a risk that speech and expression on campus will be chilled as a result."

Keep in mind that most administrators, student conduct officers, and police officers are not expertly trained in the nuances of the First Amendment. They might not even be aware that public university students enjoy broad free speech rights. Offensive speech is constitutionally protected unless it specifically and objectively threatens violence.

FIRE's report also notes that some universities were reluctant to release records of their BRTs' proceedings, and in some cases, failed to produce requested documentation. It's simply not healthy for college campuses to employ bureaucratic speech police whose activities are shielded from public view.

The report contains one encouraging note, however: some universities, having noticed many of these problems, are shutting down their BRTs. In August of last year, the University of Iowa cancelled plans to create a BRT, citing the "high failure rate of the [teams] at other institutions."

Read FIRE's full report here.