Speech First, a nonprofit group dedicated to free speech, has filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan for chastising students with speech codes that the group regards as “unconstitutional” and “un-American.” The group filed the suit in federal court on Tuesday with the claim that the definition the public institution uses for harassment and bullying, as referenced in the student conduct code, is vague and restricts speech. Speech First is alleging that since April 2017 there have been 150 incidents reported involving posters, classroom behavior, social media, verbal comment, and fliers that have merited a response from UM administrators and its Bias Response Team.
Three unnamed current University of Michigan students are party to the lawsuit. Speech First is a membership group that consists primarily of students, alumni and students’ family members.
The webpage for the university’s Bias Response Team declares: “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” The lawsuit charges that the University of Michigan defines harassment as "unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual." The Bias Response Team can warn potential offenders that perceived bias “may be intentional or unintentional.”
The lawsuit said that university’s definition of bias is so subjective that "any student who offers an opinion that may be deemed by another student to be 'hurtful' to his or her 'feelings' risks an investigation from the university’s disciplinary apparatus and the potential for punishment ranging from 'restorative justice' and 'individual education' to formal disciplinary action." Offending students can also face “unconscious bias training.”
Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, told Fox News, “Bias response teams are fundamentally un-American and have no place on college campuses.” Neily compared the practice found in communist China and East Germany.
Neily told Spero News that the University of Michigan has not yet responded officially to the lawsuit. Speech First will file a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan by Friday. Judge Lynda V. Parker, an Obama nominee, will preside.
“Nobody has litigated against bias response teams before,” Neily said, adding, “What we’re primarily interested in is the chilling effect that the over-broad vaguely-worded speech code and the bias response team, which is also overbroad, has had on students.” She noted that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that more than 231 educational institutions have similar bias response teams, which monitor the behavior of 2.8 million students across the country. Neily said that her organization has similar lawsuits in the works for other campuses.
Neily contends that terms such as “harassment”, “bullying”, and “bias-related misconduct” are vague. According to the lawsuit, the the Bias Response Team at the University of Michigan, which is made up of top administrators and campus law enforcement, receives complaints and then investigates perceived bias. If the alleged offenders are found at fault, they can face sanctions.
According to Speech First, even if accused students are not punished, the possibility of facing an official investigation may keep students from bringing up unpopular or controversial topics. Students who wish to contend with the Bias Response Team face expensive legal fees. If a student were to sue, a decision from a court may take years --- long after the student in question has graduated. Courts have rule that there is no future harm to be suffered by a student who has already graduated.