The United States Department of Justice backed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan on Monday, taking the position that the public university's vague anti-harassment policies violate the First Amendment.
"The United States has a significant interest in the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning," said the statement in support of the lawsuit that the Justice Department filed in federal court. "In recent years, many institutions of higher education have failed to uphold these freedoms, and free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country."
The group suing Michigan is a new free speech advocacy organization called Speech First. Its suit contends that the university's bias response team punishes students for engaging in constitutionally protected expression, thereby chilling free speech. Michigan's code of conduct prohibits harassment and defines it broadly as "unwanted negative attention." Taken together, these well-intentioned policies chill free speech on campus and violate the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit.
Michigan's administration has countered that the BRT merely provides voluntary support to students who need it, and does not formally sanction students. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told The Detroit Free Press that both Speech First and the Justice Department have "seriously misstated University of Michigan policy and painted a false portrait of speech on our campus."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions evidently sees things differently.
"Freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack," said Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio in a statement. "This Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is committed to promoting and defending Americans' first freedom at public universities."
Assuming the lawsuit moves forward in court, it will be an important test of whether BRTs—which are in place at more than a hundred universities—are constitutionally permissible.