Culture

One University’s Orwellian Plan to Ask Students to Report ‘Bias’ Speech

As the spring 2015 semester drew to a close for students at the University of Colorado, Boulder, some strange fliers materialized on bulletin boards and in hallways across campus.

One read: “Go back to Africa, you don’t belong here.”

Another said: “You’re such a pussy, such a fag. You are not even a real man.”

And another: “Your mom must be the janitor ’cause that’s the only job for dirty Mexicans.”

Not to worry — it’s not real bigotry, just the outgoing student government’s attempt to publicize the university’s “bias-motivated incidents” reporting system. Each of these ugly statements had been “reported to CU Boulder.”

The idea might be bizarre enough, but its implications are worse. The posters admonish students: “Be Boulder. Report it.”

Report it, that is, to an official website where all manner of information about you, the “victim,” the “person of concern,” and anyone else involved is to be recorded. If the matter is serious enough, “The Bias Incident Response Team . . . responsible for identifying and contacting appropriate departments and offices which are necessary to implement an intervention” may be dispatched.

“What ought to offend here is not the language on the posters,” university chancellor Phil DiStefano explained in an online statement defending the campaign, “but the language that is used in perpetuating acts of racism, ethnic intimidation, homophobia and other acts of bias in our campus community.”

Naturally, the campaign did offend. One ethnic-studies professor told the Boulder Daily Camera that some of her minority students were “horrified” by them. Several of the fliers were pulled down by upset students. (The president of student affairs, Juedon Kebede, said this was the point: “We want people on this campus to feel uncomfortable.”)

The student government initially refused to take down the offensive posters, but the end of the semester provided them with a pretext for doing so. (A next move has already been hinted at. Magnolia Landa-Posas, director of diversity and inclusion for the CU student government, told the Camera that there are plans for an “action-oriented” campaign to be rolled out as early as the fall semester.)

While the posters are gone, the Orwellian reporting system that they were intended to publicize remains very much in place. What’s a “bias-motivated incident” that students are supposed to report in detail? The university says it encompasses the following:

  • Discrimination — Occurs when an individual suffers an adverse consequence, on the basis of one or more of their protected classes. 
  • Harassment — Verbal or physical conduct that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an intimidating or hostile work or educational or living environment. Examples may include, but are not limited to, epithets, images, slurs, jokes; electronic communication or other verbal, graphic or physical conduct.
  • Acts of Intolerance — Conduct motivated by discriminatory bias or hatred toward other individuals or groups based on perceived or actual characteristics of race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, political affiliation, or political philosophy or other attribute.

Some of the behavior laid out by these labels is certainly objectionable, but CU Boulder, like every university, has long prohibited discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. What more needs to be covered? Whence the imperative of expanding our PC lexicon to include bias-motivated incidents (BMIs for short)?

While the posters are gone, the Orwellian reporting system that they were intended to publicize remains very much in place.

Speaking with National Review, Valerie Simons, CU Boulder’s Title IX coordinator, says that BMIs are no different than the kinds of mischief that universities have traditionally tried to stamp out.

“They’re different terms for pretty much the same kind of conduct,” says Simons, who also heads the office of institutional equity and compliance responsible for investigating reported BMIs.

It’s curious, then, that the new student government and the chancellor would make such a point of emphasizing the terminology of “BMI’s” (chancellor’s apostrophe) when familiar language would do. It’s curious, too, that the official website for reporting sexual misconduct, discrimination, and harassment allows one to separately report BMIs, in the great detail available. Isn’t this redundant?

There certainly could be darker motives afoot. Some worry the reporting system is an administrative apparatus for regulating, even discouraging, students’ politically incorrect speech.

The administration and student government adamantly deny those charges. CU Boulder spokesman Ryan Huff told the College Fix that the reporting system is “in no way intended to curtail freedom of speech” while noting official opposition to “racial slurs and other demeaning bias-motivated acts.” He apparently did not pause to acknowledge that racial slurs, and many BMIs, are protected by freedom of speech.

Simons likewise downplays the possibility that the reporting system could threaten First Amendment rights. Mere name-calling and teasing don’t qualify as BMIs, she says — her office is interested in investigating “pervasive and severe” patterns of behavior, not isolated incidents.

Saying “Iraq veterans are murderers” once wouldn’t constitute a BMI, but repeatedly making a point of saying it to an Iraq veteran with ill intent could constitute a BMI, she says. Ditto for saying, “Bruce Jenner is really a man” to a transsexual.

#related#I see at least two problems with this: First, Simons’s distinction between single incidents and pervasive behavior is not reflected in the official BMI definition. While the three categories of offenses do have limits, there is no “pervasive behavior” standard outlined.

The second problem is that the standards for reporting an incident can easily be lower than the standards for taking administrative action on the basis of a report. The more troubling question here is not “whom would the administration find guilty of BMIs?” but rather “who could be singled out and reported as a ‘person of concern’ according to the current policy?”

The flier campaign makes it abundantly clear that individual comments are reportable, and that we are strongly encouraged by the student government and administration to report them.

In fact, it’s difficult to find a principled way of ruling out as reportable comments like “Bruce Jenner is really a man” and “Iraq war veterans are murderers.” Veterans and transsexuals are, after all, members of protected groups no less than racial minorities, and statements like these can be interpreted as affronts to their respective statuses.

An environment in which students can’t say things such as these without fear of being reported to authorities — with or without a high likelihood of being found guilty of some speech crime — is not one where free speech reigns.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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