University sued over constitutionality of Bias Response Team

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 - 8:08pm

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Danyel Tharakan/Daily

The University of Michigan is the first university in the nation to receive a federal lawsuit regarding the effect of the U-M Bias Response Team on freedom of speech throughout campus. 

On Tuesday, Speech Firstan organization of students, citizens and alumni advocating free speech on college campuses, filed a federal lawsuit against the University, challenging the Bias Response Team’s accordance with the U.S. Constitution and calling for a permanent injunction prohibiting the Bias Response Team from investigating students.

Speech First President Nicole Neily said the organization is filing the injunction against the University based on three main 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.”

This is not the first time the University’s speech code and freedom of speech has been called into question.  In 2017, hundreds of students flooded into the Michigan League to voice displeasure with the Michigan Political Union’s decision to debate the Black Lives Matter movement as harmful to racial relations, causing many people outside of the University to question whether unpopular voices or perspectives can be heard at the University. Similarly, when Charles Murray, author of "The Bell Curve,” a book which argues for the concept of racial differences in intelligence, spoke at the University, several students attempted to shut down the event.

The University has experienced controversy on the speech code as far back as 1989. A 1989 case, Doe v. University of Michigan, determined the University's 1988 hate speech law violated the constitutional right to free speech. 

Neily claims freedom of speech and the campus atmosphere are stifled by vague and subjective speech codes and bias response teams. 

“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.”

According to the University’s Bias Response Team website, a bias incident is anything that discriminates against a community based on their identity.

“A bias incident is conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity (such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age or religion),” the website states.

Ultimately, the lawsuit filed by Speech First questions whether the opportunity to report bias incidents and mete out justice stifles the atmosphere at the University. Speech First also challenges the legitimacy of the bias reports filed and focuses on the vague terminology on the Bias Response Team website. The University’s Bias Response website explains a bias incident can be anything inciting uncomfortable “feelings.”

“Bias comes in many forms. It can be a hurtful action based on who someone is as a person,” the website states. “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”

The Bias Response Team allows students to file complaints and follows up the reports by investigating the incidents and the students involved. The Bias Response Team reacts to incidents such as the blackface Snapchat mocking #BlackLivesMatter during the spring term and the racial slurs written on dorm door name tags during the fall term, by investigating the incidents and using a detailed log to explain the steps taken to respond to the racist incidents. 

While the Bias Response Team seeks to eliminate hateful and harmful speech, Speech First seeks to protect all student voices, even if they might be unpopular.

“In recent years, colleges have adopted various policies — including speech codes, 'safe spaces,' and 'free speech zones' — with the goal of shutting down unwanted speech,” the Speech First website states. “The message is clear: Students with unconventional ideas should shut up and keep their opinions to themselves. Censoring speech infringes the rights of students to express their opinions on campus. Just as important, it harms the rights of other students to listen to the speech — to challenge, debate, and learn from the views of their fellow students.”

The University is one of several universities in the nation with a bias response team, but the first to receive a federal lawsuit. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen declined to comment regarding the lawsuit.

“We haven’t been served a copy of the lawsuit and have no comment at this time,” Broekhuizen wrote.