Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Listen to this article

The “Bias Response Team” at the University of Michigan is now history, a victim of its hostility to constitutional niceties like freedom of speech.

Is the University of Illinois’ bias response team next?

Only time will tell. Why?

The UM is located in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where a three-judge panel recently ruled that its bias response team violated the free speech rights of UM students.

The UI answers to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, where a free speech challenge to its bias response team is pending.

Michigan threw in the towel on its bias team after the appellate panel overturned a trial judge’s decision to dismiss a free speech challenge filed by Virginia-based Speech First and sent the lawsuit back for further review.

The appeals panel concluded the modus operandi of these teams is to “act by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”

“The very name ‘Bias Response Team’ suggests that the accused students have been prejudged to be biased. The name is not ‘Alleged Bias Response’ or ‘Possible Bias Response Team,’” wrote appeals court Justice David McKeague in a Sept. 23 decision.

The appellate court decision prompted UM lawyers to negotiate an Oct. 25 surrender agreement with Speech First in which it made concessions that brought the litigation to an end.

UM dissolved its Bias Response Team and agreed that it “will not reinstate” one in the future. At the same time, it has established a “Campus Climate Support” (CCS) team that will assist students who “feel they have been harmed or negatively impacted” by being exposed to statements or points of view they do not share.

The climate support team, however, will be different from the bias team in that it will lend assistance to some needy students but be barred from contacting or punishing other students for their speech.

The settlement agreement states that the CCS team is “not a disciplinary body, cannot impose discipline and does not require participation in any aspect of CCS’s work.”

“Its purpose is to support students, faculty or staff, connect to resources and, over time, to contribute to the maintenance of respect and understanding among members of the university community,” the settlement agreement states.

The settlement also requires UM to abide by statutory definitions of “bullying” and “harassing” behavior rather than the expansive definitions of those two words UM first promulgated

To say that UM gave its bias response team wide berth to punish speech is to put it mildly. Its conduct code defined harassing or bullying speech that could be subject to a range of punishments up to expulsion as whatever the person who heard the speech perceived it to be.

The UM code stated that “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” a definition so broad that Speech First argued “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak.”

Speech First is headed by Nicole Neily, a 2004 UI graduate who spearheaded the civil rights lawsuits against the UM and the UI. She was elated by the UM settlement.

Referring to the definitions of “bullying” and “harassing” as well as the disbanding of the bias response team, Neily said the settlement “gives us the relief we initially requested.”

“In addition, we have reserved our rights to challenge the Campus Climate Support program in the future should the program ever be used to chill students’ speech.”

This victory paves the way for college students who have been too fearful to express their opinions to finally embrace free speech rights and engage in true academic discourse,” Neily said.

Speech First filed a federal lawsuit against UM in May 2018. It sued the UI in May 2019.

Urbana-based U.S. Judge Colin Bruce denied Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the UI’s effort to oversee speech and punish alleged speech offenders.

It’s that decision that Speech First has appealed to the 7th Circuit.

The UM and UI are far from the only colleges and universities that have instituted teams to oversee campus speech, entreat alleged victims of speech and punish those who say things bias teams consider unacceptable.

Implicit in the speech debate is the notion that those who hear opinions or ideas they do not like are injured by the experience and in need of treatment.

UM’s campus climate team said it “works to ensure that appropriate university resources and expertise are made available to anyone who feels they have been harmed or negatively impacted” by a speech experience.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.