At the taxpayer-funded University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, hurting someone’s feelings –– whether on purpose or by accident –– can lead to disciplinary action from the school’s “Bias Response Team.”
As expected, the group is comprised of non-essential faculty, apparently, and represents members of the office of vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion; the office of student conflict resolution; and the office for institutional equity, among others.
“Bias comes in many forms,” the school’s website says. “It can be a hurtful action based on who someone is as a person. The most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”
Did you catch that last part? “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings” (emphasis added).
LifeZette reached out to university spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen for understanding about how the broad and highly subjective definition of bias at the University of Michigan chills free speech on campus, but she would not comment.
There is one group that has a lot to say on the matter, however. Speech First, a Washington, D.C.-based legal non-profit, was created to combat restrictions on free speech and other civil rights at colleges and universities nationwide.
Headed up by Nicole Neily, the group filed a lawsuit on May 8 against the university, claiming the school’s Bias Response Team is investigating and punishing constitutionally protected speech.
“Students are actively discouraged from discussing their opinions and closely held political views on campus out of fear,” Neily told LifeZette. “It’s common knowledge that students who seek to use humor, parody, or satire when discussing sensitive topics can face severe punishment –– up to and including expulsion.”
She added, “So out of an abundance of caution they simply don’t. The only way to avoid the risks of investigation and/or sanctions are to refrain from discussing sincerely held views; express those views less forcefully; or articulate those views only in the company of students who hold those [same] views … We’ll be asking for a preliminary injunction as this case works its way through the courts,” she added about the lawsuit. The group “would eventually like to ensure permanent changes to make sure all students feel free to speak their minds,” she said.
If successful, the injunction would put the bias response program and the university’s speech codes on hold.
Let’s hope so. Today more than 200 campuses nationwide have established similar bureaucratic offices to handle alleged acts of “bias” that violate no law, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Stunningly, “bias incidents can be things that do not violate any law or policies,” stated the University of Michigan website. “In some cases, in addition to it being a bias incident, it may violate laws and or/U-M policies.”
“’Feelings’ are deeply subjective,” Neily told LifeZette. “Under this definition of bias, students must be certain before speaking that their words won’t be perceived as offensive by even the most sensitive student on campus.”
Like many colleges nationwide, this university seems committed to safe spaces for kids at all costs. Yet it should be teaching tolerance for viewpoint diversity — the real purpose of academic life.
“Sadly, the window of acceptable political discourse on campus is so narrow [today] that students who express views outside that orthodoxy can be dragged through administrative proceedings to face punishments up to and including expulsion,” added Neily. “They know this, so they avoid speaking altogether.”
Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.