Amid a federal lawsuit filed by the organization Speech First against the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team, the University has responded, claiming the lawsuit has mischaracterized University policies and programs.

Speech First, a group composed of students, alumni and citizen free speech advocates, is suing the University, claiming the University has violated the right to free speech given in the U.S. Constitution.  

When asked for comment on the lawsuit, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald referred to a statement released on behalf of the University in the University Record.

“In Wednesday’s court filing, the University argues that the lawsuit has mischaracterized university policies and programs and ‘how they have been applied and has painted a picture of the university that does not reflect the true vibrancy of debate and discussion on campus,’” the statement reads.

The statement goes on to explain the policies and programs reaffirm free speech a core principle at the University. 

“The University’s Standard Practice Guide reaffirms the university’s commitment to free speech,” the statement reads. “It states, in part, that ‘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. Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle at U-M. Commitment to this principle is reflected in the history, the policies, and the practices of the university. Students, faculty and staff regularly hear and meet a wide range of speakers who bring diverse viewpoints and perspectives to the Ann Arbor campus.’”

Speech First President Nicole Neily hopes the case will be decided based on its merits. Based on the First and 14th Amendments, the group’s case says the Bias Response Team’s work is too broad, too vague and constitutes prior restraint.

“This is a proactive lawsuit,” Neily said. “It’s not that any one of our students had a seminal incident where the school (did) something to them. It’s that they’ve been discouraged from acting or speaking at all because of how the policies are worded. They don’t know what they can be in trouble for and they feel that they can be in trouble at any time.”

According to the Bias Response Team’s website, a bias incident is defined as conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone based on their identity. The incident log documents over 150 reports within the last year.

While this is the first federal lawsuit the University has faced regarding the Bias Response Team, the University has had its speech code and freedom of speech on campus called into question on numerous occasions. Previously, students have voiced displeasure with the Michigan Political Union’s decision to debate Black Lives Matter as harmful to racial relations. A 1989 case, Doe v. University of Michigan, also determined that the University’s hate speech rules at the time violated the constitutional right to free speech.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which Speech First uses for reference, the University’s Ann Arbor campus has a “red light,” the worst tier ranking on the website, specifically for the Expect Respect and the Standard Practice Policy for Sexual Harassment. FIRE’s “red light” warning is given to universities when there is at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

LSA sophomore Betsaida Valdivia worked with the Bias Response Team when she filed a report with the team in March. Valdivia is a member of La Casa, the Latinx student body on campus. She saw a picture of a student in blackface mocking #BlackLivesMatter on Snapchat circlulating a member group chat, and was motivated to report the incident. The team followed up with Valdivia in a consultation regarding the incident while the group investigated.

Valdivia believes students should be able to speak on things outside of their comfort zones, but a line should be drawn between what is acceptable and what is hate speech should be drawn.

“I understand that students should be able to go beyond their comfort zone … however, there’s a difference between going out of your comfort zone and going beyond a safe space,” Valdivia said. “Remember, with a safe space, you may converse with people who think similar things than you do but probably in different ways … they cannot allow for hate speech or allow for things that hurt different groups of people.”

Ultimately, Neily explained Speech First is seeking policy reform.

“I don’t think that this is a bad-faith effort,” Neily said. “I don’t think there was any one administrator or President Schlissel that has gone in to say ‘let’s stomp on student’s speech rights’. I think these are just well-intentioned policies that weren’t well written. I’m presuming good faith on the part of Michigan’s administrators. I do hope we will be able to come to a solution.”

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