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'Speech Police' Spreading On Campus

University-sanctioned “speech police” are proliferating across Americans campuses, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE said that 232 colleges and universities – with a total student body of three million – have established Bias Response Teams. While colleges and their surrounding communities have long had mechanisms for addressing ugly hate crimes, BRTs address the subtle slights and "micro-aggressions" – whether intentional or unintentional – that might make someone feel unsafe.

BRTs are mainly staffed by deans, administrators, and campus staff borrowed from diversity, student life, LGBT, and Equal Opportunity offices. But FIRE reports, 42 percent also include law enforcement personnel, what FIRE called “literal speech police.”

The BRT at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. deemed the message “Make America Great Again” written on the whiteboards of two female faculty members of color as a “racial attack.” Pro-Trump messages written in chalk at the Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Michigan also prompted school-wide investigations.

BRT officials at the University of Oregon spoke with staff members of the campus newspaper in response to an anonymous complaint alleging a lack of coverage of transgender people.

Mike Jensen, an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Colorado, was warned “not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom” after a student complained about If somebody has never been a woman, how can they know they feel like a woman?

“Inviting students to report a broad range of speech to campus authorities casts a chilling pall over free speech rights,” Adam Steinbaugh, senior program officer at FIRE, said in a statement. “Bias response teams solicit reports of a wide range of constitutionally protected speech, including speech about politics and social issues. These sometimes anonymous bias reports can result in interventions by conflict-wary administrators who then provide ‘education,' often in the form of a verbal reprimand, or even explicit punishment.”

Martin Berger, the Acting Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of California–Santa Cruz, told AMI that BRTs are necessary. “For many year bias reports, if they were dealt with at all, were handled haphazardly.  Campuses in recent years have sought to build multi-disciplinary teams capable of handling any incident that arises."

BRT’s are proliferating despite the controversy.

Faculty members at the University of Chicago issued a statement against restrictive campus speech codes in 2016. The school also has a BRT.

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, an assistant professor in the Educational Studies department at Carleton College who has been critical of BRTs, said it is telling that “the Chicago Statement was written by University of Chicago faculty [the Provost], while on the other hand the administration has set up a Bias Response Team. It illustratesa fundamental disconnect between faculty and administration."

Snyder says he has not had any personal experience with bias complaints, but he worries about how the institution of bias reporting will stifle research and teaching in the social sciences, including in his work on the history of race and desegregation in education.

Steinbaugh thinks the impetus behind the growth of BRTs is more bureaucratic than ideological, resulting more from campus administrative bureaucrats importing harassment reporting and counseling practices from corporate HR departments than from academic theories about censoring privileged groups and empowering marginalized groups.

But FIRE’s report also notes that “there is an unavoidable tension between promoting free speech and academic freedom and working to combat the presence of 'bias' (however defined) on campus. Yet only 85 (50.9%) of the teams surveyed acknowledged a tension with freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, or academic freedom on their websites or in their policies.”