Bias Response Teams Thwarted in Their Goal of a Sensitive Campus by the First Amendment

How can you re-program the thinking of boorish college students when their free speech guarantees get in the way?


The Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice released a first-of-its kind study on bias response teams, a relatively new invention in the ever-expanding world of college free speech management.

Interviews with administrators who police and discipline students who have used insensitive language or display insensitive attitudes reveal their frustration with the free speech guarantees that prevent them from punishing students. The First Amendment, some of them say, constrains them from creating sensitive, inclusive communities.

The study is strangely hand-waving and feel-good, concluding, with little evidence, that bias response teams "created a safer, more welcoming campus community." And it fails to fully address the cost at which all this inclusivity comes. Just one administrator questioned the growing prevalence of administrative speech-policing and its hindrance of discourse and debate of controversial issues––seemingly the point of a college education.

Researcher Ryan Miller, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and his team dissected how administrators combat bias while still respecting free speech rights. They conducted interviews––of 21 administrators at 19 predominately white universities––focused on answering one fundamental question: "How do bias response team members understand their roles concerning free speech?"

The team defined bias incidents "as conduct, speech, and expression that are motivated by prejudice but which "do not involve criminal conduct such as assault, threats, or property damage." These could include insensitive jokes, slurs written in common areas, unsavory themes for parties, or phrases like "that's so gay," according to the study.

Kelly, an administrator from a midwestern public university, said in her interview, "Of course, the university has an interest in upholding individual rights. But when the exercise of individual rights becomes reckless and irresponsible, and inconsistent with our community culture, our mission, our values—that's when a bias incident response team can be most effective."

John, another public university administrator, defined the team's role as a mechanism "to respond and to restore or push back against whatever threat that might pose to an inclusive campus environment."

These administrators seemed to understand they're restrained from cracking down of free speech, especially on public campuses. One administrator, Jennifer, said, "We can't have [offensive groups] removed…How can we be proactive knowing that these groups will come? What kind of support can we give to the students that are triggered when they see these folks and being mindful of that?" Lisa, from a public university in the northeast, expressed frustration at not being able to respond to hateful incidents because "our hands were tied because of the freedom of speech."

Susan, works for a public university, said, "Much of the criticism that we get is the distinction that we make at the university between free speech and hate speech. Hate speech we don't allow, but free speech we do. That's an ongoing, everyday battle for us." This bias response team member apparently doesn't realize there is no distinction because hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and not even a legal category.

Administrators rightfully distinguished between forums––if a professor, for example, whose bias against a viewpoint or identity hinders someone's ability to speak up or learn, there is a legitimate problem. They also recognized differences between public and private colleges, and the role that distinction plays in informing their approach.

The administrators also touched on "teachable moments," situations in which they couldn't formally punish students, but were able to correct a student's behavior, and "deanly moments," where students are given a sort of come-to-Jesus talking-to by top university officials.

Team members are right that hateful actions disrupt their campus communities, but their "deanly" or "teachable" reprimanding is incredibly condescending. They are dealing with adults, who should be able to take care of and think for themselves without nannying or policing by overpaid administrators.

Hurtful comments, rude jokes, and insensitive theme parties––like my alma mater's "Vietnam War party" that involved students dressing in camo and drinking at makeshift tiki bars––are in poor taste. But people should be free to be as offensive as they please, and allow other students—the market, if you will—to embrace or shun that type of behavior.

Why do colleges spend so much time and money sheltering college students from offense or uncomfortable situations, rather than equipping them to handle issues on their own? James, an administrator from a private university in the northeast, seemed to have the best grasp on the potential unintended consequences: "If people feel afraid to say the wrong thing, then they don't engage in conversation at all. You should want to create a climate in which people do feel free to inquire and ask questions from ignorance."

James is right, but in the minority of administrators. Most are more concerned by the degree to which their "hands are tied" by the First Amendment.