The University of Michigan is pushing back against a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the school’s “Bias Response Team” and policies that allegedly chill campus speech.
In a court filing on Friday, the university said the lawsuit, filed last month by the watchdog group Speech First, presented a “false caricature” of school’s conduct code and how it is implemented.
“Speech First claims that these policies and programs chill the expression of politically conservative views on campus,” the university said in the filing. “But that claim ignores how these policies have been implemented.”
The lawsuit claimed the University of Michigan disciplinary code uses vague and broad definitions of “bullying” and “harassment,” effectively barring speech that other students might find “intimidating,” “demeaning,” “bothersome” or “hurtful.”
“Under this regime, the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak,” the lawsuit said.
Speech First also called for the disbandment of the university’s Bias Response Team, which the lawsuit claims had investigated more than 150 “expressions of bias” since April 2017, responding to complaints by removing flyers and posters, erasing whiteboards and investigating students and professors for their remarks.
In its court filing, the University of Michigan said the Bias Response Team does not actually “investigate reports of bias or make findings about whether any misconduct has occurred. The BRT process is entirely educational and supportive — and purely voluntary.”
The university also pointed out that conservative speakers are regularly invited to campus without incident, including representatives from the “Young Americans for Freedom, College Republicans, the Federalist Society and the Michigan Review, all of which have enjoyed official University recognition and access to University space.”
“Students writing for campus publications have defended President Trump, argued that abortion should be illegal, condemned welfare, endorsed the right to carry concealed weapons and ridiculed identity politics with satire,” the filing continues. “University student groups have hosted some of the country’s most controversial voices — including Charles Murray, author of ‘The Bell Curve’; Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart contributor with the Twitter hashtag #Feminism is cancer; and commentator Jonah Goldberg, author of ‘Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.’”
Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, said the group is reviewing the filing and will respond on or before the June 29 deadline.
“We look forward to a prompt ruling on our motion for the preliminary injunction,” Ms. Neily said in a statement.
Petitioners in the case were several University of Michigan students who claim their speech has been curtailed as a result of the climate of illiberalism on the Ann Arbor campus.
The Justice Department backed the lawsuit in a June 11 statement of interest, arguing the university had implemented a “system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech.”
The department said the university’s “failure to bind itself to controlling definitions” of terms like “bullying” and “harassment” had given university officials “an unrestricted delegation of power” over what can and cannot be said on campus.
The next day, the University of Michigan announced it had revised several definitions in the student code to reflect the university’s “commitment to freedom of expression that has always been expressed in the statement itself.”
The university said the process of updating those definitions had already been underway, but was “accelerated” by the lawsuit.
• Bradford Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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