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Survey: College ‘bias response teams’ threaten free speech

By   /   February 8, 2017  /   No Comments

SPEECH POLICE: The rise of “bias response teams” on college campuses raises the specter of an emerging literal police force designed to silence free speech.

Across the country, colleges and universities have been setting up “bias response teams” that allow students to report, often anonymously, incidents of alleged bias on campus. As one might expect, incidents of “bias” typically only refer to conservative viewpoints.

For example, two professors at the University of Northern Colorado were reported for relaying conservative viewpoints. The professors made no indication that they themselves believed the viewpoints discussed, but still they were investigated by the teams. One professor had his students read an article in the Atlantic about hiding from controversial ideas. The professor then instructed his students to address controversial topics, including abortion, gay marriage and transgenderism. A student who identified as transgender reported the professor for saying transgenderism is controversial.

The other professor was reported for instructing his students to read and respond to controversial opinions on homosexuality. He assigned his students to visit the website GodHatesFags.com and discuss whether the site was harmful or in line with Christian values. He also asked students whether gay marriage should be legal or if homosexuality is immoral. As in the first case, a student reported the professor for discussing the topics and opinions.

Rather than learning how to address controversial subjects and engage with peers on why their opinions may or may not be wrong, bias response teams allow students to punish those with whom they disagree.

According to a new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, bias response teams are becoming a threat to free speech on college campuses.

FIRE surveyed 232 institutions of higher education which publicly identified bias response teams, and 167 of them list the officials behind the reports of bias. Forty-two percent of the schools that identified officials behind the bias response teams listed members of law enforcement — “literal speech police,” the report states.

Adam Steinbaugh, FIRE’s senior program officer, denounced the bias response teams as an attack on free speech.

“Inviting students to report a broad range of speech to campus authorities casts a chilling pall over free speech rights,” Steinbaugh 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.”

The biggest problem with bias response teams is that they encompass a wide range of incidents, and their definitions are often confusing and vary from school to school. For example, the University of Northern Iowa defines a “bias-related incident” as “any word or action directed toward an individual or group based upon actual or perceived identity characteristics or background of a group or person that is harmful or hurtful.”

Western Washington University states that bias incidents can be “demostrations,” including “language, words, signs, symbols, threats, or actions that could potentially cause alarm, anger, or fear in others, or that endanger the health, safety, and welfare of a member of the University community, even if presented as a joke.”

In every case, subjectivity is all that’s needed to make a report — a student merely has to “feel” they were harmed or targeted in some way. This allows sensitive students or those seeking attention to punish others for saying things they don’t like.

Ultimately, allowing students to report small incidents that don’t fall under the definition of hate crime or are protected by free speech harm the reporting student, who is taught to hide from differing opinions rather than engage with them.

One can’t live in a bubble forever. Eventually these students will have to hear an opinion with which they disagree, and colleges should be teaching them how to engage with those whose opinions differ from theirs.