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University of Michigan Disbands ‘Bias Response Team’ In Response to First Amendment Challenge

At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, September 20, 2018 (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)

The University of Michigan will disband its “Bias Response Team” as part of a settlement reached with a campus free-speech nonprofit that sued the university over the First Amendment violations inherent in the team’s mandate.

The settlement was reached after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the Bias Response Team “acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”

The administrative bias team has been tasked with investigating campus incidents that could be deemed racist, sexist, hostile to LGBTQ students, or offensive to certain groups of people. Speech First, the free-speech advocacy group, filed a lawsuit challenging the procedures on First-Amendment grounds.

In June of 2018, the Justice Department issued a statement of interest for the Speech First, Inc., v. Schlissel case and found that Michigan’s anti-harassment policy was “unconstitutional because it offers no clear, objective definitions of the violations.”

“Our nation’s public universities and colleges were established to promote diversity of thought and robust debate, so we must not accept when they instead use their authority to stifle these principles on their campuses,” Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in a statement at the time. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions is committed to promoting free speech on college campuses, and the Department is proud to have played a role in the numerous campus free speech victories this year.”

Under the settlement, Michigan agreed never to revive its old definitions of bullying and harassment. University administrators had replaced the bias response team earlier this year with a “campus climate support team” that aims to “support students, faculty or staff” but has no disciplinary function. Speech First also reserves the right “to challenge the Campus Climate Support staff, should that program turn out to be no different than the Bias Response Team in practice.”

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