Anti-bias efforts at the University of Michigan took a hit Monday as the Justice Department declared some of the institution’s policies “unconstitutional” and accused its Bias Response Team of chilling free speech.
The feds’ statement of interest was issued as part of a lawsuit filed against the University of Michigan earlier this year by the First Amendment nonprofit Speech First. It sued the taxpayer-funded university on behalf of three unidentified students, alleging the university’s vague policies on harassment and bullying – and a pending provision on “bias-motivated misconduct” – violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The Justice Department agrees with that assessment.
“Speech First alleges that the University of Michigan’s policies on ‘harassment,’ ‘bullying,’ and ‘bias’ are so vague and overbroad as to prompt students to limit their speech out of fear that they might be subject to disciplinary sanction, including ‘individual education’ or ‘restorative justice’ at the hands of the University’s Bias Response Team,” the DOJ statement reads.
“The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that the University of Michigan’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits ‘harassment,’ ‘bullying,’ and ‘bias,’ is unconstitutional because it offers no clear, objective definitions of the violations. Instead, the Statement refers students to a wide array of ‘examples of various interpretations that exist for the terms,’ many of which depend on a listener’s subjective reaction to speech,” the Justice Department continued.
“The United States also argues that the University’s Bias Response Policy chills protected speech through its Bias Response Team. The Bias Response Team, which consists of University administrators and law enforcement officers, has the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction. It encourages students to report any suspected instances of bias, advising them: ‘[t]he most important indication of bias is your own feelings.’ According to the plaintiff, the Bias Response Team has responded to more than 150 alleged incidents of bias in the last year.”
But UMich spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told the Detroit News the Bias Response Team does not discipline students.
“Contrary to the department’s statement, the university’s Bias Response Team does not ‘ha[ve] the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction.’ Rather, it provides support to students on a voluntary basis,” Fitzgerald said.