The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that Speech First, an organization that promotes free speech on college campuses, can continue with a lawsuit challenging The University of Michigan’s broad speech codes after a district court had previously denied them injunctive relief, as reported by Inside HigherEd.
According to the original complaint filed by Speech First, officials at the University of Michigan had created “an elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress and punish” any speech that students may deem offensive.
“Under this regime, the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak,” reads the complaint. “The universities expansive and amorphous prohibitions on ‘harassment,’ ‘bullying’ and ‘bias-related misconduct’ are having — and will continue to have — a profound chilling effect on protected expression.”
In addition to breathing new life into the lawsuit, the court noted that “even if an official lacks actual power to punish, the threat of punishment from a public official who appears to have punitive authority can be enough to produce an objective chill.” The court also agreed with Speech First’s claim that the University of Michigan Bias Response Team acts “by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”
Bias Response Teams similar to the subject of the complaint have been instituted at universities across the country. In 2016, Reason published an analysis of the 85 complaints reported at the University of Oregon and found Bias Response Teams to be “essentially an administrative thoughtpolice that routinely intervenes in situations where one students’ constitutionally protected speech has offended another student.”
In one incident, a student reported a party that had a “culturally appropriate theme,” which led to a bias response team case manager meeting with a student involved in the party. In another incident, “an anonymous staff member reported that another staff member asked a coworker inappropriate questions and did not refer to them correctly,” prompting the university to open a ‘gender identity/expression” investigation and meet with the individual who was deemed offensive.
Free speech protections have been a subject of interest for the Trump administration, which had filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit against the University of Michigan last summer, arguing that bias response team “chills protected speech.”
Earlier this year, President Trump signed an executive order tying the protection of free speech on college campuses to government grants, according to the Hill.
At a signing ceremony, Trump said “under the guise of speech codes, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans,” reports the news agency.
“All of that changes, starting right now,” Trump continued. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.”