Judge declines motion to halt actions of Bias Response Team

Wednesday, August 8, 2018 - 4:45pm

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Katelyn Mulchay/Daily

A federal judge has denied Speech First’s motion to end the University of Michigan’s use of the Bias Response Team after the nonprofit organization filed a lawsuit against the University claiming the team hindered free speech on campus.

Judge Linda V. Parker of the U.S. District Court sided with the University’s defense stating the Bias Response Team does not mete out discipline but rather works as a support system for victims of bias incidents.

“The evidence does not even reflect an instance where the BRT criticized the speech of an individual who is reported to have engaged in biased conduct,” Parker’s statement reads. “But even if the record reflected that the BRT had criticized an individual’s speech, there would be no First Amendment violation ‘in the absence of some actual or threatened imposition of governmental power or sanction.’”

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said the University is reviewing the ruling but is pleased by the result.

“We are carefully reviewing this ruling for all of its implications,” Broekhuizen wrote in an email interview. “We are pleased to see the court has affirmed our definitions of bullying and harassment and agrees that the mission of the university's Bias Response Team is educational, not punitive and does not violate the First Amendment.”

Parker’s ruling comes after Speech First filed a lawsuit against University May 8 challenging the University’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities and the role of the Bias Response Team.

At the time, Speech First President Nicole Neily said the organization was pursuing the lawsuit against the University based on three factors.

“We have multiple members of the organization at the University,” Neily said. “The University of Michigan also has a combination of a very bad speech code that is very vague, a very active Bias Response Team that is very proud of its achievements because it keeps a log and we have numbers there, though not all were listed in the complaint. These were the three things we needed.”

After the initial lawsuit, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in Speech First’s lawsuit against the University June 11. 

The DOJ’s statement of interest questioned not only the University’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities but also the U-M atmosphere.

“The University of Michigan proclaims on its website that ‘[f]reedom of speech is a bedrock principle of [its] community and essential to [its] core educational mission as a university,’” the statement read. “Unfortunately, the University is failing to live up to that laudable principle. Instead of protecting free speech, the University imposes a system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech.” 

University President Mark Schlissel and the University responded to the lawsuit and the DOJ’s statement of interest by explaining the role of the Bias Response Team was mischaracterized.

“They go and listen to students when they feel they’ve been subject to acts of bias or prejudice,” Schlissel said during an interview in June. “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.”

In response to the lawsuit, the University 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 state law definitions, but after the lawsuit was filed, the University eliminated the dictionary definitions.

"The goal is to remove potential ambiguity," Schlissel said in the interview. "We're changing the way we describe things, but we're not changing the function of these groups."

Parker said the new definitions demonstrate the University’s willingness to protect free speech on campus.

“(T)his court finds that Defendants have met their burden of demonstrating mootness with respect to the University’s ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ policies,” Parker wrote. “(T)he University removed the objected to definitions of ‘bullying’ and ‘harassing’ within a month of Speech First’s initiation of this lawsuit.”

Parker’s decision comes nearly a week after she reportedly said the Bias Response Team did not threaten free speech at the University during a July 31 hearing.

"The University considers this voluntary and the student has no obligation to come in," Parker reportedly said according to MLive. "You say there is an implicit threat. I don't see that.”