Speech First and University settle lawsuit over free speech

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 8:31pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

The University of Michigan and Speech First, an organization dedicated to promoting and upholding freedom of speech on college campuses, agreed to settle an ongoing lawsuit related to freedom of speech and the University’s Bias Response Team. The agreement to settle, which effectively dismissed the lawsuit, was reached between Oct. 24 and 25.

Since May 8, 2018, the University and Speech First have been engaged in a dispute over whether the University’s Bias Response Team stifled freedom of speech on campus and violated the First Amendment. The University created the Bias Response Team during the 2010-2011 academic year to investigate claims of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination put forth anonymously by students, faculty and staff. Speech First declared the team unconstitutional.

According to the settlement agreement, the University replaced the Bias Response Team with Campus Climate Support beginning in the 2019-2020 school year with no plans to reinstate the Bias Response Team in the future. The CCS serves a similar purpose, but does not reach out to the subjects of the anonymous reports directly. According to the University Record, the settlement does not bar staff members from speaking to individual students or student groups about any incidents that may have occurred. 

The new CCS will continue to address issues of discrimination on campus and support those who choose to report, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. The goal of the CCS is to make University resources available to students, faculty and staff when instances of discrimination arise.

“The focus of this work is providing support, which has been the long-standing primary (focus) of this work,” Fitzgerald wrote.

LSA junior Lincoln Ballew, chairman of the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, said the CCS will benefit the University in ways the Bias Response Team did not. 

“I think that’s a much better system than the BRT because it doesn’t make anyone afraid to speak what they would like to,” Ballew said. “But also, it provides support for people who may be offended by comments. So, it’s a good system to replace the BRT.”

In August 2018, U.S District Court Judge, Linda V. Parker, sided with the University and rejected Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Bias Response Team. According to Parker, in September of this year, a federal appeals court reversed Parker’s decision and voided the ruling on the basis the Bias Response Team infringed upon the First Amendment rights by allowing students to report discrimination anonymously. 

According to the settlement agreement, the University removed certain definitions of “harassment” and “bullying” from its Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities on June 11, 2018, after the lawsuit was filed by Speech First. The change was meant to clarify the definitions of these terms for students, faculty and staff. 

Fitzgerald told the University Record the decision to settle will reaffirm the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and prevent against similar claims against the University in the future.

“Vigorous debate on all sides of an issue has been a hallmark of this campus before and during the lawsuit,” Fitzgerald said. “We have confidence that true diversity of thought will continue to flourish on our campus.”

The decision to settle is a victory for the organization and for free speech rights on college campuses, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. Neily wrote that Speech First is satisfied with this decision but will continue to watch the University for any actions that may violate First Amendment rights. 

“The settlement gives us the relief we initially requested: the University agrees to never return to the unconstitutional definitions of ‘bullying’ and ‘harassing,’ and to never return to the Bias Response Team,” Neily wrote. “We have reserved our rights to challenge the Campus Climate Support program in the future should the program ever be used to chill students’ speech. This victory paves the way for college students who may have been too fearful or intimidated to express their opinions to finally embrace their free speech rights and engage in true academic discourse.”

When contacted by The Daily, College Democrats and College Republicans declined to comment on the outcome of the lawsuit. 

Ballew said she hopes the settlement, and the lawsuit in general, allows students to speak freely with each other and voice their opinions in ways they may have not been able to previously. 

“I hope it provides an environment for students to be able to have honest and open conversations without fear of problems from the University because of what they’re saying,” Ballew said.