Tide turning against bias response teams
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Students are shown walking to classes at N.C. State University's Raleigh campus. The Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity manages N.C. State's Bias Impact Response Team.
Adult college students are capable of ironing out their differences — or agreeing to disagree — without Orwellian thought police encouraging tattletales’ worst impulses."
When an off-color joke or clumsy come-on is reported, the speech police swoop into action, threatening targets of their open-ended investigations with punishment or reeducation. Complaints are often anonymous, and no perceived slight is too small to trigger a formal review.
This dystopian drama plays out on college campuses with bias response teams, a higher education trend that’s as misguided as it is dangerous. But savvy students and wise judges are turning the tide.
Three days before Christmas, the University of Texas at Austin agreed to disband its Campus Climate Reporting Team in a settlement with Speech First, a Washington-based nonprofit that sued on behalf of several UT student members. The lawsuit provides a roadmap to reform for undergrads who can’t discuss controversial subjects without living in fear of faceless snitches.
A federal district judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction, finding Speech First lacked standing to challenge several university rules in open conflict with the First Amendment. But the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit, ruling that UT’s broad policies chilled students’ speech and caused them to self-censor in order to avoid discipline.
“It is not hard to sustain standing for a pre-enforcement challenge in the highly sensitive area of public regulations governing bedrock political speech,” Judge Edith H. Jones wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
The 5th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court, and its Oct. 28 opinion indicated Speech First would likely prevail. University of Texas lawyers caved, agreeing to scrap problematic policies in a settlement filed with the plaintiff’s Dec. 22 notice of dismissal.
The UT case follows a 6th Circuit ruling that led the University of Michigan to disband its bias response team on similar grounds in October 2019. Michigan replaced the panel with Campus Climate Support, which links students to counseling resources but doesn’t initiate contact with those accused of causing them discomfort.
In a 2017 survey of American colleges and universities, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, identified 231 bias response teams and noted that the agencies were “growing rapidly.” More than 40% of the teams included law enforcement officers among their membership, making them literal speech police.
Reported “bias incidents” often center on political expression. Through public records requests, FIRE learned that Ohio State University’s response team investigated a chalk message expressing support for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and memes that compared Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler.
While efforts to squelch conservative speech grab headlines, progressive activism also falls under the bias response microscope. At Texas Tech University, a complainant targeted the Black Student Association for a #BlackLivesMatter tweet dismissive of “all lives,” “white lives” and “blue lives” messages. An Appalachian State University student objected to anti-Trump chalk scribblings.
The teams have spread like kudzu at public colleges and universities, which are government institutions bound by the First Amendment, and at private colleges, which have more latitude to censor student speech but often pay lip service to expressive rights in their handbooks. Private schools that promise free speech and fail to deliver can be sued for breach of contract.
“Beyond First Amendment concerns, encouraging students and faculty to anonymously report one another to administrators for subversive or offensive views is illiberal and antithetical to a campus open to the free exchange of ideas,” FIRE states in the executive summary of its 2017 report.
Bias response teams have their defenders — deluded professors and provosts who believe the panels advance diversity and equity goals. In a June 2019 opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, Ryan A. Miller and four other scholars contend that many BRTs lack disciplinary authority and work to resolve conflicts by engaging with students on a voluntary basis.
That argument presumes undergrads are on equal footing with the administrators who come calling with news that someone’s accused them of a bias incident. Even at colleges that claim students are free to decline meetings with BRT members, the power imbalance makes such an outcome unlikely, and notice of a complaint alone may chill a substantial amount of protected speech.
Adult college students are capable of ironing out their differences — or agreeing to disagree — without Orwellian thought police encouraging tattletales’ worst impulses.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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