The University of Michigan is firing back against a lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Speech First Inc., calling the suit “a false caricature” of the university’s free speech policies and practices
The lawsuit alleges U-M has adopted policies that chill the expression of conservative political views on the Ann Arbor campus. But the university’s response, filed in federal court today, suggests that Speech First has dramatically misstated university policies and how they have been implemented.
U-M lists scores of national speakers and campus forums, dozens of articles in student publications and several student organizations that have clearly expressed the conservative political views the lawsuit espouses are suppressed.
“The principle policy that Speech First challenges – the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities – begins with a strong commitment to ‘freedom of expression,’ noting that the university’s ‘long tradition of student activism and … freedom of expression … includes voicing unpopular views and dissent’,” the court filing reads.
The university’s response to the lawsuit further says “the university’s implementation of its policies has been completely faithful to this overriding commitment. And, in fact, the actual intellectual life on campus includes student groups, student publications, and outside speakers who are comfortable advocating and debating strongly held and sometimes controversial views across the full ideological spectrum.”
Earlier, there were other developments related to the lawsuit:
• The university clarified and tightened the campus definitions of bullying and harassing, both of which are prohibited under the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the university already was reviewing its websites and policies to ensure they complied with First Amendment principles and other legal obligations. After the lawsuit was filed, that review was accelerated. The streamlined definitions and other website language were updated online Monday.
• The lawsuit piqued the interest of the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed a “statement of interest” in the case noting that the department is “committed to promoting and defending Americans’ first freedom at public universities.”
In response, the university said the Justice Department, “like the plaintiff (Speech First), has seriously misstated University of Michigan policy and painted a false portrait of speech on our campus. Contrary to the department’s statement, the university’s Bias Response Team does not have ‘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.”
In its official court filing, the university cites a number of mischaracterizations in the complaint, filed May 8, and also expresses its opposition to Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction that would stop the university from enforcing its policies against bullying or harassing, and to stop the work of the Bias Response Team.
The court filing includes legal declarations from four university officials in the Division of Student Life, who speak to the facts of university policy and the functions of the Bias Response Team.
Among the claims made by Speech First are that the existing university policies and programs chill the expression of politically conservative views on campus.
But, the university says, “that claim ignores not only the University’s repeated emphasis on the priority of free expression; it also ignores how these policies have been implemented.
“No student at the university has been disciplined under the Statement for harassing or bullying based on the mere expression of a point of view. And the Bias Response Team that is the focus of much of the Plaintiff’s attack is not a disciplinary body at all. Its work is purely supportive and educational, and it works only with students ‘who agree to participate.’”
Speech First says it represents three anonymous students — Students A, B and C — who say they have “been chilled and deterred from speaking openly” about their views on such subjects as gun rights, illegal immigration, abortion, the welfare system, gender identity, affirmative action and Title IX.
Yet the university highlighted dozens of examples of debates and forums, speakers on campus, articles in student publications and officially recognized student organizations that routinely cover those topics from a conservative perspective.
“There is no reason why those students or any others should not feel free to engage in such debate. The university’s policies explicitly guarantee them that freedom and do not threaten disciplinary action against any student for expressing any view, no matter how unpopular or controversial,” the university says.
Regarding claims that the university’s Bias Response Team can discipline students in violation of their free speech rights, the university notes that the Bias Response Team does not, and cannot, discipline students. The team, created in the 2010-11 academic year, was designed to serve as a resource for students who believe they have been affected by an incident of bias.
The Bias Response Team process is entirely educational and voluntary and limited to those parties who agree to be involved. Its principal purpose is to provide resources and expertise to assist students in addressing perceived bias. No student is required to engage in these discussions, however, and in many cases students opt not to participate.