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At University of Illinois, 265 bias complaints enforced by literal ‘speech police’

Campus law enforcement part of panel tasked with investigating student interactions

In the wake of a recently filed lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana bias response team, The College Fix reviewed the 265 bias complaints the public university fielded during the last year. The lawsuit charges the university’s Bias Assessment Response Team (BART) with being a literal “speech police” force.

At the end of each school year, the university issues a report detailing all of the previous year’s bias reports, and the report for the most recent year available, 2017-18, summarizes the complaints and how campus officials followed up in just about every case.

While there were 265 total complaints, 98 of them involved a single incident in which the campus shuttle, Suburban Express, sent an e-mail attempting to attract Asian students that said “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

The 128 unique complaints included a wide range of topics: sometimes trivial or politically correct incidents, other times complaints revolved around use of the n-word or other derogatory language. In a few cases, professors who said controversial things were the subject of complaints. Two big issues during that school year also focused on a “build the wall” event and the school’s controversial former mascot, a Native American chief.

But while many universities have bias response teams, what seems to set the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana apart is that its team has a sort of punitive arm to it, the lawsuit alleges. Many campus officials who run the bias response teams say they simply collect the data, but UICU appears to take it a step farther by either foisting educational conversations on students or barring them from talking about certain subjects or even contacting other students.

Among bias complaints fielded during the 2017-18 school year, Resident Assistants reported that they saw the word “retarded” and a drawing of a penis on a bulletin board while they did rounds. In response, there was a floor meeting and a floor email about this incident.

In another case, an RA in University Housing reported that when on rounds she noticed a white board that asked passersby to rank the “best language.” The list included several languages, both real and fake, in addition to some programming languages. One option was “Mexicanese.” The housing staff met directly with the affected parties and held an educational program for students, according to the university’s report.

Other complaints dealt with professors. In one instance, a student emailed a professor asking about taking a history class and the professor responded by giving the student information about African Studies when she didn’t ask about African Studies. In response, a “member of the team met with the student and followed up the Chair of the department, who followed up with the professor,” the report stated.

Elsewhere on campus, one instructor allegedly told a class: “The government can define marriage” and “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” The report does not state what response the bias team undertook.

Another complaint focused on the food service industry. In this case, the manager of the Wendy’s in the student union refused to look at or call a student by his name and instead told him that he would call him “Lee.” This earned the Wendy’s manager a visit from the director of the Illini Union.

Some bias complaints focused on social media activity. A student posted a meme in a Facebook group that suggested women had an easier time gaining entrance to the university’s School of Engineering. The bias response team reached out to both the student who posted it and the one who reported it, the report states.

In another example, a student reported that while at a poster sale in the campus union they asked if any posters had content from Russia in any form. The person working replied “absolutely not” with a “slightly aggressive tone” and said if they did have any Russian posters he would remove them. A member of the bias team met with the reporting party. Further, the Illini Union Board discussed the incident and followed up with the corporate office of the poster vendor, according to the university’s report.

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of four anonymous Illinois students by Speech First, a nonprofit membership association. It argues the bias reporting system has become “weaponized,” chilling constitutionally protected speech on campus. The lawsuit contends the public campus has effectively become a “surveillance state,” as students who say the wrong things can face disciplinary action from the university.

Two major incidents that the lawsuit focused on deals with the university’s former mascot and a group of right-of-center students who built an anti-illegal immigration wall display.

With regard to the controversial mascot, some students are calling for the return of Chief Iliiniwek, the school’s Native American mascot that was mothballed 12 years ago, arguing it is a sign of Native American heritage. But urging the return of the mascot can earn a student a complaint with the university.

In 2017, an anonymous bias reporter said that they read a newspaper article that Chief Illiniwek would be in the homecoming parade. The complainant said that the continued presence of the mascot “makes it hard for students to focus and enjoy their time here,” the university’s report stated.

The lawsuit alleges that the student who dressed as Chief Illiniwek for the parade was then investigated by the Bias Assessment and Response Team, and that other students who spoke out in favor of bringing the mascot back also faced investigations into their behavior.

For instance, the university investigated a student who posted a picture of Chief Illiniwek on the student’s Facebook page, a student who posted a meme about Chief Illiniwek in a Facebook group, and students who planned a “Meeting with the Chief” program in support of bringing the mascot back, the lawsuit states.

Members of campus law enforcement sit on the bias response team’s board, which literally makes it the “speech police,” Speech First’s suit contends.

This speech police force has been deputized to investigate even the smallest slights or statements, the lawsuit argues. This appears to be substantiated by the university’s own report, which stated that a student was reported to the bias team for writing “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall” in chalk in the quad. A member of the team met with the student who made the complaint; it’s unclear if they knew who wrote it.

But when campus brass did know who was behind controversial campus statements, they did meet with them. Case in point: eight bias complaints were filed over an incident regarding a Turning Point USA event titled “Building the Wall: A Memorial for Victims of Illegal Immigration.” Each brick used to build the wall included a description of violent behavior committed by undocumented individuals.

Members of the bias response team reached out to all identified reporting parties and the leadership of the student organization. One member of the student group’s leadership met with a member of the team prior to the event, the university’s report stated.

The lawsuit contends that these conversations and the threat of being reported chills free speech. “The BART and University Housing thus threaten to subject students to investigations and punishment based solely on the content of their speech,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, other incidents reported to the bias response team during the last school year include:

· An anonymous person reported that a speaker brought to campus by a student group was offensive to non-US citizens by saying things like, “America is the greatest country in the world” and “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

· A student who identifies as transgender reported that a building service worker in a dining hall said that trans people shouldn’t be in the military and called trans women “male.” This incident was forwarded to Housing Human Resources and the Office for Diversity Equity and Access.

· A student reported that an instructor had said, “If students did not cheat on the English proficiency exam they could avoid feelings of isolation.” This comment was made following a presentation the instructor had given about the isolation that international students can face on campus.

· Flyers were distributed around Champaign that appeared to be recruiting for the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the University of Illinois police determined the flyer was a hoax intended to target the people whose address was listed on the document.

Yet some bias complaints have actually been filed against students more likely to be associated with the political left. In one instance, an anonymous student reported that a professor continuously says during her lectures how white students won’t be able to talk on any issues of race or social injustice “because they have not experienced it.” A member of the bias team reached out to the professor.

Later, a former student reported that in the spring of 2016, two students in their student organization supported “anti-theistic perspectives” and mentioned religion as “lies.” They would also say that people would have to be “stupid” to believe in religion.

The Speech First lawsuit against the university also objects to the university’s rule that requires students to receive clearance from the school before they hand out campaign literature for non-campus elections. The lawsuit also challenges the university’s “No Contact Directives” that prevent students from having contact with certain other students.

“The University of Illinois is deeply committed to the core values of free speech and free expression and to the open exchange of competing ideas and perspectives,” spokesperson Chris Harris told The College Fix in a previously published written statement.

All of these incidents were reported to the university’s Bias Assessment and Response Team website, where students and faculty members are encouraged to report one another to the administration for any perceived incident of bias.

According to the BART website, bias-related incidents are “actions or expressions that are motivated, at least in part, by prejudice against or hostility toward” a person or group’s “actual or perceived age, disability/ability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, national origin, race, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc.”

This article is one of a series of exclusive College Fix reports about bias reporting systems on campuses across America:

University of Utah: Professor accused of ‘hostile learning environment’ for assigning male authors

Indiana University: Janet Jackson’s nipple triggers bias complaint at Indiana University

Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech on the hunt for campus penis artists

North Carolina State University: Troll mocks campus anti-bias effort with complaint Warren’s Native American DNA claim was triggering

Michigan State University: Student files bias complaint against dorm roommate for watching Ben Shapiro video

University of Oregon: Bias report filed against professor for defending Brett Kavanaugh

Portland State University: Making jokes at Portland State gets you reported to its bias response team

SUNY-Binghamton: Off-campus road rage incident reported to university’s ‘Hate or Bias’ system

University of Florida: Recent bias complaints filed at U. Florida cite a grumpy professor, a racist Snapchat, and a crass joke

MORE: University of Illinois sues alum for selling ‘Make Illinois Great Again’ shirts

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About the Author
Senior Reporter
Christian focuses on investigative, enterprise and analysis reporting. He is the author of "1916: The Blog" and has spent time as a political columnist at USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and National Review Online. His op-eds have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, City Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has also been a frequent guest on political television and radio shows. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Marquette University and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.