February 22, 2017
Universities are the cradle of free speech, where ideologies and ideas clash, where academics and activists can agree, disagree, or be disagreeable. This is particularly true in the United States, where the First Amendment zealously guards against government surveillance and intrusion into free speech.
Yet at hundreds of campuses across the country, administrators encourage students to report one another, or their professors, for speech protected by the First Amendment, or even mere political disagreements. The so-called “Bias Response Teams” reviewing these (often anonymous) reports typically include police officers, student conduct administrators and public relations staff who scrutinize the speech of activists and academics.
This sounds like the stuff of Orwell, although even he might have found the name “Bias Response Team” to be over-the-top.
Over the past year, I surveyed more than 230 such reporting systems for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and asked dozens of schools for records about their Bias Response Teams. What I found is detailed in a new report describing how universities broadly define “bias” to include virtually any speech, protected or not, that subjectively offends anyone. On many campuses, administrators are called upon to referee whether speech is polite.
The threat to expressive rights isn’t confined to speech from the Left or the Right. Bias reporting systems are being used to report all kinds of speech.
At Appalachian State University, students reported on one another for chalked messages that were pro-Trump as well as chalked messages calling Trump a “RACIST.” The former were reported by students as “hate speech,” the latter “politically biased slander” that was “unlawful.”
While students at Ohio State University reported each other for comparing Hillary Clinton to Hitler, students at Texas Tech were whispering to administrators that the Black Student Union’s tweets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement offended them. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon saw it fit to dictate “community expectations” to students who had the audacity to complain about oppression.
Yes, complaining about oppression may bring the Bias Response Team to your dorm room to explain why your views were insufficiently polite, decent, and non-controversial.
What happens when the Bias Response Team is alerted to subversive or offensive speech? Some teams have demonstrated an awareness that a public university cannot (and should not) act to chill protected speech, focusing their efforts instead on supporting students who encounter offensive speech. But others, such as the University of California, San Diego, call upon their lawyers to find “creative” ways to censor offensive speech: in that case, a student newspaper satirizing “safe spaces.” (The university is now being sued for these “creative” efforts.)
Many Bias Response Teams respond with what they characterize as an “educational” response. This might sound like a faculty member visiting a student who was reported for racist speech and discussing the Civil Rights movement. But it’s not. Rather, it’s often an administrator, not an educator, summoning a student or faculty member to a meeting, reprimanding them, and “educating” them about how their words upset someone.
That was the case at the University of Northern Colorado, where an adjunct professor encouraged students to confront views with which they disagreed. When a student sparred with the professor over transgender rights, a debate raging both in the media media and legislative and judicial chambers, the professor was summoned to meet with an administrator, who warned the professor that discussing such issues might result in lengthy investigations.
How will students be able to defend their rights in the legislature or the courts if debating them in the classroom is to be discouraged?
Students face serious instances of harassment, true threats, and other conduct that is not protected by the First Amendment. Yet in asking students to report any and all offensive speech, universities risk undermining their commitment to free discourse and debate.