Campus Free Speech

Legal Group Sues University of Michigan Over Speech Code, Bias Response Team

"A bias response system has no place in America."


Scott Kashkin

The new free speech advocacy organization Speech First announced Tuesday that it is suing the University of Michigan on behalf of three students who object to the campus's broad disciplinary code and bias response team.

These campus policies imperil students' First Amendment rights and chill free expression on campus, the lawsuit contends.

"Speech codes like Michigan's flagrantly violate the First Amendment," said Speech First President Nicole Neily in a statement. "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."

Michigan's code of conduct prohibits harassment, defining such conduct as "unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual." It's easy to see how censors could abuse this standard: It punishes speech merely perceived as bothersome to any person, no matter how unreasonable that person's perceptions are.

Bias response teams, which exist at dozens if not hundreds of campuses, are also a frequent source of free speech abuse. They generally permit students to report each other for having done or said something offensive. The team compiles lists of thoughtcrimes, and occasionally contacts the perpetrators or refer them for disciplinary action.

The Wall Street Journal's Jillian Kay Melchior previously filed a public records request for Michigan's BRT files. She reports that the

university thwarted this inquiry by imposing a fee of more than $2,400 for the public records. But the log shows that in one reported incident of verbal bias in the classroom, the Bias Response Team said it referred a university employee to administrators who "shared concerns with the academic department involved." In several other cases, the Bias Response Team determined that some reported acts of verbal bias could constitute sex discrimination…

A Michigan spokesperson tells The Detroit News that the school has no comment on the litigation thus far.

As I've written previously, bias response teams are grounded in the junk science of microaggression theory, and represent a pernicious threat to free expression on campus. Libertarians will watch this case with great interest.