Free Speech Group Sues Indiana University over Bias Reporting

Speech First is an advocacy group that protects students’ right to express themselves without fear. It has been quietly working the legal system and winning court battles across the country. 

The issue of free speech on college campuses has been in the spotlight since the pro-Hamas and pro-Israel demonstrations began after October 7, 2023. Speech First has won a series of court battles over attempts made at colleges to restrict students’ speech by using bias response teams (BRTs) and other monitoring activities. Most often the bias is against conservative speech or religious speech. Now the group has Indiana University on its radar.

Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana is one of the top research schools in the United States. It seems to be encouraging students to anonymously turn in other students. 

“BRTs have increased on campuses over the last decade. In more recent years since COVID, we have seen them more widely used and advertised,” said Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump.

“Students are encouraged to report on one another anonymously, and the way universities define reportable ‘bias incidents’ ranges from incredibly broad and vague definitions that would encompass all sorts of constitutionally protected speech to specifying that ‘microaggressions, mean jokes, stereotyping, offensive speech’ are all reportable offenses,” said Ms. Trump, who is not related to former President Donald Trump.

In a lawsuit against Indiana University filed in May, Free Speech claims that the university’s bias police board, which reviews allegations of biased student speech, violates the First Amendment.

Broad and vague definitions to cast a wide net, eh? Indiana University has a bias police board which Free Speech alleges violates the First Amendment. I bet it only violates conservative speech.

Alleged violations are monitored on campus, off campus, and on social media. Quite the authoritarian campus it has going, right? Is “1984” ironically issued on reading lists?

Under the university’s bias incident policy, school officials investigate allegations of bias on or off campus, including on social media, and can initiate formal disciplinary proceedings against students.

According to the complaint, a bias incident is defined as “any conduct, speech, or expression, motivated in whole or in part by bias or prejudice meant to intimidate, demean, mock, degrade, marginalize, or threaten individuals or groups based on that individual or group’s actual or perceived identities.”

“Living up to their Orwellian name, bias response teams encourage students to monitor each other’s speech and report incidents of ‘bias’ to the University (often anonymously). ‘Bias’ is defined incredibly broadly and covers wide swaths of protected speech; in fact, speech is often labeled ‘biased’ based solely on the listener’s subjective reaction to it,” the lawsuit reads.

This is crazy. IU was once a great university. Full disclosure – I have some history with the university. My grandfather’s company built many of the magnificent limestone buildings on campus, my father attended IU, and I attended 1 semester there. My husband was a Bloomington native. And so on. This story makes me cringe. 

It has always been a liberal spot in an otherwise conservative south-central Indiana. Now it sounds like if anyone talks about anything at all, there is the risk that some snowflake will be offended and make a report. College campuses are supposed to be places of discussion, teaching young people how to argue different points of view. Is there just silence on campus now? I know that’s not true because I’ve seen the coverage of pro-Hamas protests on campus. 

Some incidents that have been reported include writing an article about “safe spaces,” tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, and writing “Build the Wall” in chalk on a sidewalk.

The school won’t comment on pending litigation. 

More than 450 schools across the country are reported to use bias response teams. Some are beginning to eliminate them after losing lawsuits to Speech First. Some schools that have lost to Speech First are Oklahoma State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan, and Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech took the case to the Supreme Court and it eliminated its bias response team. The 4th Circuit of Appeals ruled against Speech First, saying it didn’t have standing or sufficient legal injury to sue. The Supreme Court didn’t set oral arguments. However, Justices Thomas and Alito were in favor of doing so. They dissented, saying they had serious concerns about bias response policies.

Who supports this system of students encouraged to narc on each other over something someone said? Why does it apply to off-campus time? I’m not as surprised about people complaining about social media posts. 

The university admits the policy is broad and not finely defined. It’s no wonder it’s gotten out of hand. Justice Thomas rightly pointed out that these policies encourage a patchwork of First Amendment rights on campuses. Different schools have different policies. 

The courts can’t agree on what to do. The 4th and 7th Circuits of Appeal ruled that the bias response teams don’t chill student speech. The 5th, 6th, and 11th Circuit Courts have ruled that the teams chill speech. 

So, there we are. Chaos and confusion over free speech issues on college campuses. I hope IU will eliminate its bias response team but I’m not holding my breath. What a mess.

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