Federal appeals court vacates ruling supporting University’s Bias Response Team

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 8:11pm

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Design by Christine Jegarl

A federal appeals court voided a ruling in favor of the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team on Monday, arguing the group infringes upon First Amendment rights and suppresses freedom of speech across campus. The decision sent the case back to the U.S. District Court and reversed the August 2018 ruling by district court Judge Linda V. Parker, who ruled in favor of the University and the BRT.  

The role of the University’s BRT is to investigate claims of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination put forth by those at the University. The lawsuit alleges the BRT, which allows students, faculty and others at the University to report incidents of bias, violates the First Amendment because the claims quell freedom of speech and may not be completely legitimate.

In May 2018, the University became the first university in the country to receive a federal lawsuit related to freedom of speech when Speech First, an organization dedicated to promoting and upholding free speech on American college campuses, filed a lawsuit alleging the BRT violates the First Amendment. A month later, on June 11, the Department of Justice submitted a statement of interest in support of Speech First and the lawsuit. 

When contacted by The Daily, Speech First president Nicole Neily declined to comment specifically on the federal appeals court’s decision to vacate the U.S. district court’s ruling. Instead, Neily referred to a statement put out by Speech First in response to Monday’s decision.

“We are gratified that the court of appeals restored our case against the University of Michigan and ordered it to proceed in the district court,” the statement reads. “We continue to believe that the University’s policies, including the ones it tried to abandon after we filed suit, are blatant violations of the First Amendment. We look forward to vindicating our members’ rights as this litigation progresses.”

When the case reached the U.S. district court in August 2018, Parker rejected Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction against the BRT and sided with the University. In her statement signed Aug. 6, 2018, Parker wrote in a court opinion the BRT does not violate the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech but instead may only “chill” these rights. 

“Speech First alleges, and Defendants do not deny, that students engaged in ‘bullying’ and ‘harassing’ behavior can be and have been punished through (Office of Student Conflict Resolution) proceedings,” Parker wrote. “Speech First, however, fails to demonstrate that the BRT poses anything but a ‘subjective chill’ on students' free speech rights.”

While Speech First’s lawsuit was filed over a year ago, issues of free speech are still being debated on campus and throughout the state. On Sept. 5 two bills related to campus free speech passed in the Michigan House of Representatives’ House Oversight Committee. The two bills — “The Campus Free Speech Act” and “The College Campus Intellectual and Expressive Freedom Act”— aim to set standards for how universities in Michigan create policies relating to freedom of speech. 

LSA junior Lincoln Ballew, chairman of the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, said she was happy to learn the federal appeals court ruled in favor of Speech First Monday. Ballew said Bias Response Teams like those at the University have a known record of violating the rights to freedom of speech on college campuses. 

“I absolutely think the Bias Response Teams are a violation of the First Amendment and our Constitution, and so I personally believe that vacating the ruling is a huge win for the First Amendment and for free speech,” Ballew said. “People are afraid to share their points of view and their opinions because of these response teams — they’re afraid that their comments in class will be reported and they’re going to get in trouble with the University.”

Maria Muzaurieta, LSA senior and president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, issued a statement on behalf of the organization. Muzaurieta said the group continues to support Speech First and the ideas they promote about freedom of speech. 

“We stand behind Speech First in their efforts to rid U-M of oppressive rules that mock the spirit of our great First Amendment,” Muzaurieta wrote in a statement to The Daily. “The University seems keen on providing ex post facto justification of their commitment to free expression when the reality for the students represented in the case was so much different. College Republicans stand foremost behind principles of free speech, and hope that the University better adheres to those principles in the future.”

When contacted by The Daily, the University’s chapter of College Democrats declined to comment about Monday’s ruling because they felt they had nothing to add. 

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily the University maintains their existing policies regarding freedom of speech, which are outlined in the University’s policy of Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression.

“The panel’s decision did not address the merits of the university’s existing policies, and we are confident the university will prevail,” Broekhuizen wrote. “U-M is deeply committed to the protection of free speech by students, faculty, and outside speakers alike, regardless of their views.”