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Department of Justice Backs Free Speech Lawsuit Against University of Michigan Bias Response Team

"The United States has a significant interest in the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms in institutions of higher learning."

UMPublic domainThe 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.

Photo Credit: Public domain

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  • The Iconoclast||

    ...wonder which side Hillary's Attorney General would have come down on.

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    Whichever side paid more.

  • Quixote||

    She would certainly have agreed—as does the current administration—with the fundamental principle that faculty members on college campuses everywhere in our great nation are entitled to rigorous constitutional protection from unwanted "parody" and the like, so that they can engage in their teaching activities without having to deal with offensive disruptions. In New York we have a special place called "jail" that awaits anyone who should violate this basic principle in the future. See the documentation of America's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Whatever the Director of the FBI recommended.

  • Cy||

    Which ever side hacked her home server.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    " these well-intentioned policies"

    Every Soave article has at least one attempted turd-polishing.

  • Just Say'n||

    I wouldn't place blame on Robby for that phrasing. Overall, Reason has done an absolutely terrible job on asserting the principle of free speech. Probably doesn't help that they employ two people who called for violence against a speaker for wrong think. Seems like a cultural problem there. Robby's probably the best out of all of them.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Either he wrote it or he didn't. His name is under the title. If he writes stuff he doesn't believe, his sauce is weaker than I thought.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Do you take responsibility for your comment being misleading and wrong? Cuz you missed "according to the lawsuit" at the end of the sentence.

  • SRoach||

    There have been many a law that was "well-intentioned", but that was wrong. Probably the best, and most famous, example is the Prohibition of Alcohol.

    Just because the people who created this policy are wrong doesn't mean their heart wasn't in a good place.

    I find no fault in adding a single compound word to de-villianize the other side in an argument.

    Besides, "he meant well..." is a CLASSIC damning with faint praise.

  • Zeb||

    Well, do you think that the people making the policies sat down and made the policies with ill intentions?

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all that.

  • Just Say'n||

    True. From their perspective they were doing something good

  • Zeb||

    I suppose that the policies could also have just been bureaucratic ass-covering, but I'm willing to grant good intentions for the sake of argument. Intentions are worth jack shit when the policy actually harms people.

  • Eidde||

    I would use the term "subjective feeling of benevolence," and I wouldn't use that term as a compliment.

  • Eidde||

    The founders of Jim Crow probably had a warm fuzzy feeling that they were promoting racial peace and harmony. That doesn't mean they weren't doing evil.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    I don't think so. The Jim Crow laws were the product of racist policies in the Democrat Party and were explicitly intended to oppress black people, backed up by the terror tactics of the Klan. They only promoted "racial peace and harmony" by terrorizing black people into quiescence.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, that's a good way to put it.

  • Paloma||

    When you gloss over the harms and keep advocating the harmful policies, you can't say your intentions were good. Arrogance and self importance can negate good intentions.

    Plus who knows anyone's intentions unless you're psychic.

  • Paloma||

    From Hitler's perspective he was doing something good.

  • SIV||

    Mao too

  • Rossami||

    Read the rest of the sentence. Right there at the end is the attribution - "according to the lawsuit." Don't blame the reporter for the phrasing used by his/her sources.

  • BYODB||

    Well, the 'good intention' at play here is making sure that no one is able to speak their minds since it might offend one of their good little spenders into a tizzy. One thing the university can't afford is pissing off those kids who are spending a ton of future money they don't have, and educating them about how those student loans are going to weigh them down for a decade or more isn't in their best interests either of course.

    One thing you also don't want to do is fail them, since then they stop spending money they don't have.

    Of course, it's a fine line to walk since you also don't want to render a degree from your institution totally worthless so they'll have a few programs that actually still function as education while the rest are a money soak that prepares the student for a life of teaching the money soak.

    What could go wrong?

  • Libertymike||

    The commentariat should form its own Bias Response Team in order to counter the false premises and both the explicit and implicit biases prevalent in the reportage of Reason staff.

    Today's example: Robby's asseveration that Big Blue's BRT's policies are "well-intentioned."

    Why would an honest writer make such an assertion? If Robby thinks that the BRT's policies are well-intentioned, but does not have any evidence to support his claim, he should unambiguously declare that it his opinion and that there are no facts to support it.

    IOW, its okay to register one's feelz; but don't try to present one's feelz as fact.

  • Hackmaschine Mutter||

    The picture that popped into my head when I read "Bias Response Team" was a clown car rushing to the scene with bozos jumping out buckets, stepladders & hoses at the ready.

  • SRoach||

    That sounds about right...

  • Ben of Houston||

    Good grief. It's a bit of rhetoric. Who cares if it's quotation or not. You can interpret it as straight or sarcastic as you want. That's basic writing.

    It's nonsense like this that started the bias response team idea in the first place.

  • Drave Robber||

    Michigan's code of conduct prohibits harassment and defines it broadly as "unwanted negative attention."

    Is there such a thing as "wanted negative attention"?

  • Bubba Jones||

    Yes

  • Zeb||

    I'd say it's really quite a common thing. Especially among children and adults who act like children.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    To politicians and performers it doesn't matter if it's negative or positive, so long as it keeps your name front and center. Just ask Gorgeous George

  • Vernon Depner||

    Is there such a thing as "wanted negative attention"?

    I take it there's no motorcycle clubs in your area.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    FAGS!

  • Bubba Jones||

    "well-intentioned policies"

    Citation needed.

  • Rossami||

    Provided in the same sentence - "according to the lawsuit."

  • General_Tso||

    You were saying something about...best intentions?

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    Probably going to get flamed here, but if all the BRT is doing is helping students fill out bias complaints, that doesn't seem like a free speech issue. The university policies that cause punishments to happen as a result of complaints would seem to be a bigger issue.

  • Just Say'n||

    If speech is triggering the complaint that would seem to have a chilling effect. You don't even need to prevail in the complaint. The investigation alone is arduous. Like that female professor from Northwestern who underwent a Title IX complaint because of something she wrote

  • RPGuy16||

    The University should be neutral, not have a team that goes around helping people fill out complaints. Is there a team that helps the accused?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    How dare you claim anyone had good intentions, Robby. HOW. FUCKING. DARE. YOU.

    Don't you understand that there a bunch of pathetic assholes that have to read your articles every day? These pathetic assholes are liable to pass the fuck out when you claim that someone may have had good intentions. Maybe one day you'll read the comments posted under one of your careless articles and see the level of utter freakout you're causing!

    And get a haircut!

  • Zeb||

    There does seem to be a little bit of Robby derangement syndrome going on. Some of the criticism has been valid, but I think Robby has been doing a very good job lately.

  • Eidde||

    If literal speech police are constitution, anything is constitutional.

  • Eidde||

    constitutional

  • SRoach||

    So long as they don't go after actual private institutions of higher learning.
    As bad as that "Dear Colleague" letter was, telling all schools, public and private, that they can't control what happens in their own forum is itself...chilling.

    I have no objections to requiring private entities, that are suckling on the public teat, that that milk comes with a few extra rules, provided that they are not required, overtly or covertly, to use the public teat. If other policies make it impossible to operate truly independently of the government, then I do have a problem with the government imposing rules of behavior that they aren't allowed to impose generally.

    Frankly, better to wean them off, but that will never happen.

  • FreeRadical||

    I'm sure the people who put together the Bureau of Right Thinking want you to believe they have good intentions.

    But they put them together for one reason: to keep up with the Joneses. The worst thing for a progressive is to be out virtue-signalled by someone else. It's a competition.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    That right-wingers believe they are positioned to offer pointers to their liberal-libertarian betters on academic freedom and free expression on campus demonstrates a severe lack of self-awareness.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    That right-wingers believe they are positioned to offer pointers to their liberal-libertarian betters on academic freedom and free expression on campus demonstrates a severe lack of self-awareness.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Looks like 'ol Arties wantin' some squirrel fer dinner.

    Jus like that truck stop hooker he calls 'mom' usta throw at him when he was on the shitter. Rite, Artie?

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Right-wing goobers can stick with their Libertys and Franciscans and Hillsdales and Regents (while nipping at the ankles of their betters).

    Their betters will settle for the Harvards and Carnegie Mellons and Reeds and Berkeleys and Michigans.

    The results seem predictable.

  • Ariki||

    Betters........
    Pull your pants up Rev. your tiny wee slaver balls are showing.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Aww look, ain't that cute! The hick's reeling off names he heard on MSNBC.

    Why I bet he gradeated from 7th grade hisself. He's probly the smartest guy from the trailer park.

    Ain't that right, Artie? You gotcherself all cittified.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Results seem predictable? Yes. The elite colleges will provide better connections at graduation

  • FreeRadical||

    I gave myself an idea. BRT =

    Bureaus of Right Thinking
    Butt-Rending Tantrums
    Belief Reordering Tzar
    Bullshit Rote Theater

    ...

  • Longtobefree||

    Michigan's code of conduct prohibits harassment and defines it broadly as "unwanted negative attention." -
    OK, "unwanted negative attention." covers any left wing political statement ever uttered; am I harassed?
    Or is that magically different?
    Film at 11.

  • Zeb||

    I'm pretty sure I was harassed by the anti-harassment training video I had to watch at work.

  • Libertymike||

    Zeb, I trust that you would not include my post, above, as part of the RDS. If a reporter / writer describes a policy as "well-intentioned" as a statement of fact, he or she damn well deliver the factual goods to support the description. Otherwise, the writer should just admit its his or her feelz.

    BTW, what is deranged is Sparky's post at 12:37.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Shorter Libertymike:

    Waaaaaaaah. Waaaaaaah. Why you pick on me? Waaaaaaaah. Robby bad man. Waaaaah.

  • Zeb||

    Taken together, these well-intentioned policies chill free speech on campus and violate the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit.

    It's not entirely clear, but I think that means that the "well-intentioned" part is from the suit. Better use of actual quotes would help. But I'm not sure it's entirely fair to hold a blog post to the same standards of journalism as an actually edited, published article.

    In any case, I'm not sure what facts one could provide that would demonstrate good intentions on the part of the people who made the policies.

    The reason I say "RDS" is that there is a whole article here and a significant part of the comments are beating him up over a few words that aren't even obviously Robby's own opinion.

  • FreeRadical||

    I have always liked Robby in spite of his Robby-ness. He writes about stuff I find interesting from a point of view that is libertarian enough for me.

    Plus, he often gives me my two-minutes-hate against progressives. Very cleansing.

  • Libertymike||

    Zeb, the text just does not support the conclusion that the "well-intentioned" is taken, verbatim, from the Complaint.

    That Robby inserted the subject modifier is far more likely given the text and his record.

    As for our resident misanthrope, Sparky, this is the second time in as many weeks where he has been awfully forgiving of Reason's very sloppy journalistic practices. Of course, we know he is not the forgiving and magnanimous type. But, we love him anyway.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Zeb, the text just does not support the conclusion that the "well-intentioned" is taken, verbatim, from the Complaint.

    Yes, your point is that Robby is an asshole for giving someone the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were good. Regardless of whether or not the post actually read that way. You can't read and that makes Robby a bad writer. Your labeling of me as a misanthrope is straight up projection.

    If Robby thinks that the BRT's policies are well-intentioned, but does not have any evidence to support his claim, he should unambiguously declare that it his opinion and that there are no facts to support it.

    If we accept your idiotic premise that Robby is saying that the policies are well-intentioned, your lack of evidence to counter any claims made by Robby are noted.

  • Ben of Houston||

    Sparky is just mocking people like you who are taking offense at the claim that their actions were well intentioned.

    OF COURSE THEY WERE WELL INTENTIONED. Why would they not be? The explicit idea was to protect people from being harassed. This would be a good thing, if these policies have not been consistently used to effectively declare that certain subjects have only one answer and disagreement is "hateful"

    Persuading people 101.
    1: People (especially in large groups) are generally not evil or stupid, and calling them that will typically lead to people ignoring you.
    2: Acknowledging people's intent or good results in a policy before criticizing it makes supporters more likely to think that you are being reasonable.

    Now, to compare, Sparky is going about correcting people in the wrong way. He's mocking and insulting people instead of pointing out the very good reasons why you would want to acknowledge the good intentions. Similarly, you and others are going about this the wrong way, insisting that they cannot have good intentions and must have been made by cloaked figures cackling in back rooms.

    Seriously, grow up.

  • Azathoth!!||

    What the lawsuit says--

    The University's policies, even if well-intentioned, fail in this regard—they violate the Constitution's
    free speech guarantee and should be enjoined.

    What Robby said--

    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.

    The lawsuit suggests that EVEN IF the policies are 'well-intentioned' they chill free speech.

    Robby suggests the policies ARE well intentioned but are chilling free speech because of the definitions of 'unwanted negative attention' and because Speech First has pointed out that they're unconstitutional (those are the only things that can be 'taken together' in the paragraph).

    Conclusion--even accepting the 'according to the lawsuit.' clause, Robby winds up equivocating, as per usual.

  • DrZ||

    "Michigan's administration has countered that the BRT merely provides voluntary support to students who need it, and does not formally sanction students."

    Students who need it? These students are whimps who do not belong in college. They should get solitary nocturnal janitorial jobs if they do not want to be exposed to controversial ideas.

  • rpdrake||

    Whether or not "tending to chill" free speech amounts to its suppression, the policies at U. Michigan related to bias should be considered in the context of the long-standing commitment of that institution to freedom of speech.

    See the UM Standard Practice Guide: http://www.spg.umich.edu/policy/601.01, which reflects a lot of thought and care.

    A brief quote from that policy: "Expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance, not only for those who espouse a cause or position and then defend it, but also for those who hear and pass judgment on that defense. The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, or in any other way detestable cannot be grounds for its suppression."

    UM certainly has its share of leftist loonies. But it is a mistake to paint the entire place as a bastion of leftist PC behavior.

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