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Oklahoma State U. to shut down bias response team to settle free speech lawsuit

Oklahoma State University will shut down its bias response team to settle a lawsuit filed by a nationwide campus free speech organization, the group announced Tuesday.

The settlement secured by Speech First states the university will disband its Bias Incidents Response Team, will not reinstate the team nor create a new entity responsible for “bias incidents,” and will wipe all references to the bias response team from its website and written material.

The settlement also requires the public institution to change its “computer policy that previously forbade students from sending emails about politics,” a news release from Speech First stated, adding the school will also rewrite its harassment policy to include “important speech protection for students.”

The university will also pay $18,000 in attorney’s fees to Speech First, according to the settlement.

Speech First’s Executive Direct Cherise Trump said in the release she hopes “universities learn from OSU’s experience that there is a high cost to violating students’ constitutional rights.”

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, an OSU spokesperson said the university “embraces its role as a marketplace of ideas, and we believe a robust public discourse is a positive contribution to the process of addressing society’s most pressing challenges, which is our charge as a land-grant institution.”

The lawsuit was filed in January 2023. The university attempted to get the complaint tossed by claiming the plaintiffs — students not named to protect them from retaliation — did not have standing because of their anonymity; that argument was rejected in February by the Tenth Circuit appeals court.

“Speech First’s win in the Tenth Circuit on the issue of protecting the identities of its members set an important precedent in other cases and is already being cited in a major case before the Second Circuit, Do No Harm v. Pfizer,” the free speech group noted in its news release.

The development also comes after Speech First suffered a blow when the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year declined to hear its case against the bias response team at Virginia Tech, which has since been disbanded. But Speech First sought to establish precedent against bias response teams nationwide.

“This isn’t the first time Speech First has challenged a university’s harassment and bias response policies,” Inside Higher Ed reported. “It has filed—and won—lawsuits against the Universities of Texas, Michigan and Central Florida in recent years, and those universities also had to disband their bias response teams and rewrite harassment policies as a result.”

The OSU complaint had argued that under school policies, “students can be disciplined for ambiguously defined ‘intimidating’ speech, discussing politics in emails, commenting in class, or even, in the words of the University, for showing ‘a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing.’”

MORE: Oklahoma State University sued by free speech group for ‘silencing student speech’

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.