So-called “Bias Response Teams” are creeping onto university campuses across the country. This was the conclusion of the first national survey of Bias Response Teams done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
The report identified 232 public and private American colleges and universities that had bias response teams on their campuses in 2016, affecting around 2.8 million students.
BRTs encourage students to formally report on other students and faculty members whenever they perceive that someone’s speech is “biased,” which threatens free speech.
Most universities receive a variety of complaints from students, including students who encounter “offensive” yet legally protected speech, but rather than responding to these incidents fairly if there’s an actual threat, campuses with Bias Response Teams conduct an investigation and if the “respondent” is found “guilty”, invite them for a “hearing”.
Examples of Bias Response Teams exercising their power include a student humor publication at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) that lost its funding after making fun of “safe spaces” on campus. They got their funding pulled after people filed bias incident reports, one openly calling the university to “stop funding”.
At Ohio State University, students had to attend a “mandatory floor meeting about triggering events” after a group of students was reported for sharing memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler.
Students who dressed up as the “Three Blind Mice” for Halloween at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville were also reported, as the complainant felt the costumes could be interpreted as making of fun of disabilities.
FIRE Senior Progam Officer Adam Steinbaugh said: “Inviting students to report a broad range of speech to campus authorities casts a chilling pall over free speech rights.
“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 FIRE report also uncovers the people behind Bias Response Teams. According the paper, while the majority of BRT’s members are student administrators, a “shocking 42 percent” are law enforcement personnel. In other words, “‘speech police,’ in a quite literal sense.”
The danger of colluding police and student administrators is that colleges and universities send an anti-free speech message to students: “If you say something that offends someone, you may (or in some cases will) be investigated by police.”
“Colleges may rightly take action against a wide variety of conduct,” said Steinbaugh. “But in asking students to report incidents of pure, protected speech simply because someone claims he or she found it offensive, colleges are sending the destructive message that the way for students to handle speech they don’t like is not by challenging it in the marketplace of ideas, but by reporting it to authorities.”