You probably know the eerie meme "Big Brother is watching you."
Well, Big Brother was fictional character from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
So Big Brother's not really watching anybody but, as Jillian Kay Melchior reveals in today's Wall Street Journal, the Bias Response Team really is watching college students. And it is pretty eerie:
‘The most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” the University of Michigan advises students. It then urges them to report on their peers, anonymously if they prefer, “and to encourage others to report if they have been the target or witness of a bias incident.”
The Bias Response Team is there, ready to investigate and mete out justice. More than 200 American campuses have established similar administrative offices to handle alleged acts of “bias” that violate no law. A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the University of Michigan is the first in the nation to challenge the constitutionality of these Bias Response Teams.
The suit was filed by Speech First, a new nonprofit that believes that "free and open discourse is an essential component of a comprehensive education." and plans to fight to protect free speech rights on campus. The suit alleges that the Bias Response Team and Michigan's student code violate the First Amendment.
“Even apart from any punishments that may result at the end of the process,” the lawsuit contends, the existence of the team will put a damper on free speech. The suit asks a permanent injunction that would prevent the Bias Response Team from conducting investigations of students.
Discipline for a "bias" incident could be having to attend training sessions or even being suspended or expelled. Merely having offended somebody , even inadvertently, is often enough to face disciplinary action. Melchior observes:
Under the University of Michigan’s rules, “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak,” Speech First says. Since April 2017, students have reported more than 150 bias incidents. These include complaints about social-media posts, drawings, comments, phone calls and even “intentional item placement”—whatever that means. The Bias Response Team has also investigated speech or other expression even when it occurred off-campus.
One incident at Michigan: a phallic snow sculpture was reported to the Bias Response Team. The team was unable to determine the identity of the sculpture but offered counseling to those who were offended by the snow sculpture (giving new meaning to the term snowflakes?).
An assigned reading from a conservative-leaning author, apparently, is enough to traumatize the modern scholar, as this incident from a Colorado university indicates:
Even if the Bias Response Team doesn’t officially discipline an alleged bias offender, its handling of the incident can chill speech, as a recent case at the University of Northern Colorado illustrates. Adjunct professor Mike Jensen had asked his students to read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” and debate controversial subjects, including gay marriage and transgender issues.
According to the team’s report, a student who “identifies as a transwomen [sic]” told the Bias Response Team she was “very offended and hurt by this,” according to the bias incident report. A university official, Marshall Parks, warned Mr. Jensen that if he discussed such subjects again, he could face scrutiny by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as Title IX and Title VII investigations. “So if the topic’s worth that, it’s your call,” Mr. Parks said. Mr. Jensen secretly recorded the conversation. “I felt that I had no academic freedom,” he later said.
Northern Colorado shut down its bias team but Jensen has not been invited back.
Unfortunately, bias teams tend to be composed of people who have a bias bias towards finding bias:
One explanation for such absurdity is that Bias Response Teams are often composed of administrators whose jobs depend on the assumption that bias is widespread. When the University of Michigan was hiring a “bias incident and prevention and response coordinator,” it sought someone who could “enact cultural appropriation initiatives” and “partner with other campus and divisional social justice initiatives.” This makes Bias Response Team members bad cops with everything to lose, creating a bias toward finding bias.
Speech First looks like a valuable resource for students whose rights to free speech come under attack.
It is hard for one student, who may be struggling to pay for textbooks, to hire a lawyer and fight back.
But, with Speech First, we can expect to see a lot more students standing up for our constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech.