Yet another classic clash between
political correctness and freedom of speech has sprouted on campus,
but this time the proponents of a regulated and verbally sanitized
University environment have a new ally — the Michigan Student
Assembly. An MSA resolution proposes to grant the Department of
Public Safety and the Ann Arbor Police Department — in
cooperation with the Division of Student Affairs and the Campus
Safety Commission — authority to report and record on-campus
“bias incidents,” which is laden with problems and
should not be enacted.

Laura Wong

The resolution’s pitfalls stem from failing to define
“bias incidents” or even vaguely qualify the term. A
bias incident could refer to inappropriate rhetoric, falling
somewhere on a spectrum between innocuous jokes or gestures and
violent hate speech. Any statement or gesticulation that can be
interpreted as intolerant toward an individual or group’s
gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or
nationality can be considered a “bias incident.”

With an intentionally ambiguous definition of a “bias
incident,” DPS will receive a great deal of discretion in
determining what constitutes an act of bias — virtually
guaranteeing that numerous harmless acts of self-expression and
daily interaction will be misconstrued and removed from their
proper context. What if someone chooses to wear a Hooters T-shirt?
Can that student be assumed to condone the objectification of women
and thus qualify as having a gender bias? What if he simply enjoys
the wings? Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time
absorbing contemporary discourse between college students
understands that in these situations, context is crucial. Many gay
rights organizations have identified with the “queer
movement,” an example of groups using a once belittling term
to empower a subjugated unit of individuals. These gray areas
merely represent the observable loopholes within the MSA’s
resolution, all of which beg the question of whether or not it is
legitimate to monitor already protected areas of speech in the
first place.

It does not take a card-carrying American Civil Liberties Union
member to foresee some of the more serious implications. It would
not be unprecedented if a surveillance policy like this served as a
pretext for the future deployment of much more restrictive laws.
More than a decade ago, the University’s chapter of the
Marxist United Coalition against Racism, in response to visible
prejudice sentiments on campus, persuaded administration officials
to implement actual speech codes. These regulations, later ruled
unconstitutional in federal courts, actively censored some of the
very “incidents of bias” MSA seeks to have monitored.
Imagine DPS officers eavesdropping on student conversations,
surveying the content of dry-erase boards on dorm room doors and
scrutinizing student publications. MSA should not be attempting to
control speech and vote against this resolution.

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