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DOJ: Free Speech Has Come Under Attack on Campuses

The U.S. Department of Justice went on the attack against the University of Michigan's free speech code Monday, saying universities and colleges haven't done a good job of creating true freedom of speech on their campuses.

By David Jesse

The U.S. Department of Justice went on the attack against the University of Michigan's free speech code Monday, saying universities and colleges haven't done a good job of creating true freedom of speech on their campuses.

"In recent years, many institutions of higher education have failed to uphold these freedoms, and free speech has come under attack on campuses across the country," the Justice Department said in a statement of interest filed in federal court. The statement was filed in a suit brought by a group looking to bring down U-M's speech code.

"Freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack," Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio said in a statement. "This Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is committed to promoting and defending Americans' first freedom at public universities."

The statement came in a suit filed in May by a group called Speech First.

Students claim in the suit that their members enrolled at U-M "have abstained from speaking on topics including immigration, identity politics and abortion because they fear their speech will be anonymously reported as offensive, biased, and/or hateful to university authorities through the bias response system," the group said in its news  release. "The complaint alleges that these hopelessly vague policies chill student speech and expression -- a clear First Amendment violation."

This is the fourth statement of interest filed by the Justice Department  under Sessions in a similar case

The suit and the department's court filing take aim at how the university handles what students claim are remarks or actions showing bias against someone.

"Unfortunately, the portions of the (U-M's student conduct) Statement and the Bias Response Policy that Plaintiff challenges stretch far beyond the objective, well-established legal definitions of 'harassment' or 'bias,' and prohibit broad swaths of speech protected by the First Amendment," the Justice Department wrote. "In particular, the Statement and the Bias Response Policy proscribe and punish core protected speech based upon nothing more than the listener's subjective 'reaction ...'

Under university policy, the bias response team can respond to a complaint of bias, let students know about resources on campus and help students file reports of violations of the university's statement of student rights with the university's investigative office.

The Justice Department argues that U-M is robbing students of their First Amendment rights to discuss all sorts of topics in a free manner.

Not so, the university said.

"The Department of Justice, like the plaintiff (Speech First), has seriously misstated University of Michigan policy and painted a false portrait of speech on our campus," U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. "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 -- it does not investigate claims of bias or discipline students in any way.

"U-M prohibits "harassing" and "bullying," but the definitions of those terms have just been streamlined and are based on provisions of Michigan law that have been upheld by the courts."

Speech First President Nicole Neily said "speech codes like Michigan's flagrantly violate the First Amendment."

"Moreover, a bias response system has no place in America, much less on a modern-day college campus,"  Neily said. "Because it's impossible to know what comments might be 'perceived' by others as offensive, students don't contribute to conversations and debates, ask questions, write papers, or invite speakers they might otherwise. This is not a real educational experience, and Michigan students deserve better."

Last school year, U-M hosted controversial speaker Charles Murray, a conservative-libertarian author, scholar and lecturer. He was shouted at and drowned out for much of his presentation, until university administrators warned protesters they would be arrested if they didn't let Murray speak.

The speech was seen as a test of political free speech on U-M's campus.

"The university talks about their Expect Respect campaign a lot. We certainly don't get much respect, especially from students," former U-M student Grant Strobl, who graduated this year, one of the most prominent conservative student leaders in the country, told the Free Press then. Strobl is the national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom.  "The Michigan student body is a lot better behaved than lots of other campuses, but it is full of students with solutions looking for problems."

Strobl said the policy targets conservative students.

"Conservative students are often afraid that their commonly held views could be misconstrued as 'bias,' " he told the Free Press Monday. "The bias incident report system and response team is a speech-chilling tool used to coddle the left and silence the right."

(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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