News and Commentary

Lawsuit Targets University of Michigan’s ‘Bias Response Team’

The campus free speech group, Speech First, has sued the University of Michigan claiming that the school has a “too broad” disciplinary code, and that the school’s “Bias Reponse Team,” which polices complaints of micro-aggression, subtle discrimination, and minor personal offenses, unconstitutionally chills student speech at the public university.

According to Reason and The Wall Street Journal‘s Jillian Kay Melchior, UMich’s Bias Response Team is a group of administrators who encourage students to report others for hurting their feelings or infringing on their personal dignity, claiming that: “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings … encourage others to report if they have been the target or witness of a bias incident.”

BRTs then handle those “bias reports” through an extra-judicial disciplinary process that Speech First claims is murky, at best, and fails to inform students of potential consequences for affirmed “bias” reports.

The University of Michigan refused Melchior’s Freedom of Information Act requests, but she was able to locate at least a few general examples of complaints referred to Michigan’s BRT. “[T]he log shows that in one reported incident of verbal bias in the classroom, the Bias Response Team said it referred a university employee to administrators who [shared concerns with the academic department involved. In several other cases, the Bias Response Team determined that some reported acts of verbal bias could constitute sex discrimination.”

There are plenty of examples of Bias Response Team action from other schools, however, and they’re nearly all ridiculous. At the University of Oregon, for example, their Bias Response Team waged war against sexy posters in dorm rooms. At the University of Northern Colorado, the BRT was called in because a student was triggered by an essay assignment in a collegiate-level class.

Longwood University was forced to shut down its Bias Response Team after a complaint of discrimination was leveled at the Bias Response Team.

A recent study showed that BRTs have a difficult time balancing their job with the free speech rights of students who attend public universities — an arm of the government from which students are protected by the Bill of Rights. And Speech First wants the UMich BRT to explain how they manage to handle “bias reports” without chilling Freedom of Speech.

The theory is, Speech First says, they can’t:

“Speech codes like Michigan’s flagrantly violate the First Amendment,” the organization said in a statement about the lawsuit. “Moreover, a bias response system has no place in America, much less on a modern-day college campus. Because it’s impossible to know what comments might be ‘perceived’ by others as offensive, students don’t contribute to conversations and debates, ask questions, write papers, or invite speakers they might otherwise.”

According to Reason, the University has refused comment on the pending litigation.