The University of Michigan claims free speech and the campus atmosphere have been mischaracterized in their official response to the free speech lawsuit

“Perhaps because Speech First itself has no connection with the University, however, the picture it paints of the University and its policies is a false caricature,” the statement reads.

University President Mark Schlissel explains the U-M has been mischaracterized inasmuch as not only has the University’s vibrant atmosphere been entirely overlooked and misrepresented, but the role of the Bias Response Team has also been completely misunderstood by the plaintiff.

“Free speech is obviously incredibly important to the University,” Schlissel said. “Actually, we can’t be a research university without putting a high value on free speech. You can’t learn unless people are free to express their opinions whether or not other people find them harmful, insulting, annoying, disagreeable — it’s critically important — so our policies don’t impede free speech.” 

In response to the lawsuit, the University has streamlined the definitions of “bullying” and “harassment” in the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Initially, the Statement included multiple definitions, with dictionary definitions alongside Michigan law definitions. However, on Monday the University eliminated the dictionary definitions.

“The goal is to remove potential ambiguity,” Schlissel said. “We’re changing the way we describe things, but we’re not changing the function of these groups.”

Schlissel went on to explain that despite criticism from Speech First the University has several outlets for conservative students, referencing groups such as Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans as well as the various conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro who have hosted events on campus over the past few years.

In the official statement the University defends the campus atmosphere.

“The university’s implementation of its policies has been completely faithful to this overriding commitment,” the statement reads. “And, in fact, the actual intellectual life on campus includes student groups, student publications, and outside speakers who are comfortable advocating and debating strongly held and sometimes controversial views across the full ideological spectrum.”

According to Schlissel, conservative students at the University feel uncomfortable with organizations like the Bias Response Team due to mounting societal tensions.

“In general, and not just on college campuses but all across society we are becoming an increasingly politically fractured society,” Schlissel said. “People don’t feel comfortable talking to people they disagree with.”

The Bias Tesponse Team is a way Schlissel believes the University can create a healthy learning environment.

“We are responsible for making sure that students can express themselves freely regardless of the ideas they are expressing but also we are responsible for establishing and maintaining an environment where all of our students feel as if they have equal ability to participate an environment that is inclusive and free of discrimination and I really very strongly believe that those things are not inconsistent with each other,” Schlissel said regarding finding a balance between protecting students and preserving free speech.

Contrary to the way the Bias Response Team is represented in both Speech First’s and the Department of Justice’s statements, according to Schlissel, the Bias Response Team cannot investigate or punish students. Schlissel said a student cannot be punished for an act of bias in and of itself. The Bias Response Team acts solely as a support system to give advice to students, and only in extreme cases such as violence or vandalism the team reports the incidents to the Division of Public Safety and Security.

“They go and listen to students when they feel they’ve been subject to acts of bias or prejudice,” Schlissel said. “So they are not an investigative or a punishment organization. They are a student support organization and what they try to help us do is to try to develop a climate that feels inclusive, where everybody that’s here regardless of their religion, beliefs, or personal beliefs or political ideas or background, where they came from or their nationality, that everyone feels similarly included on the campus and that everybody has an equal opportunity to learn and thrive and be successful here. That’s the role of the Bias Response Team.”

The University explains in the official statement that no students have faced repercussions due to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities or the Bias Response Team, arguing that all students, including those mentioned in the initial statement from Speech First are free to express their personal beliefs and ideas.

“There is no reason why those students or any others should not feel free to engage in such debate,” the statement reads. “The university’s policies explicitly guarantee them that freedom and do not threaten disciplinary action against any student for expressing any view, no matter how unpopular or controversial.”

The responses from the University and Schlissel come as the result of the free speech lawsuit filed against the University by Speech First and the Department of Justice’s subsequent statement of interest in the lawsuit.

On May 8, Speech First, an organization of students, citizens and alumni advocating free speech on college campuses, filed a federal lawsuit against the University, challenging the University’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, as well as the U-M Bias Response Team.

According to Speech First President Nicole Neilly, the University’s Statement and the Bias Response Team break the First and 14th Amendments, with vague and subjective wording, as well as a bias response team that can seemingly mete out punishment based on a perceived injustice.

“It is very difficult to have a system in place (like a bias response team) without having a mechanism that kills speech,” Neily said. “I fail to see how you can have that kind of system without entirely stifling free speech.”

Following Speech First’s lawsuit, on June 11 the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel in what would be the fourth campus free speech case in which the DOJ has expressed interest.

“In recent years, many institutions have failed to uphold these freedoms, and free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country,” the DOJ said in the statement. 

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