Legal fights are breaking out across the nation over university policies that curtail the free speech of students and academic freedom of professors.
The advocacy group Speech First last week filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan challenging the constitutionality of the school’s Bias Response Teams and content-based restrictions on speech.
Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, said the University of Michigan’s attitude toward free speech is representative of the higher education landscape.
“Bias Response Teams are fundamentally un-American and have no place on college campuses,” Ms. Neily said Tuesday in a statement. “We have an epidemic on our hands in the higher education system — universities are establishing rules and protocols that create a dangerous environment in which free speech protections under the First Amendment no longer exist.”
A spokesperson for the University of Michigan declined to comment.
The lawsuit says the university’s Bias Response Team has investigated more than 150 “expressions of bias” since April 2017.
“In connection with these investigations, the BRT has acted aggressively to censor what it considers ‘expression of bias,’” the lawsuit says. “For example, the BRT has taken down signs, removed flyers, confronted faculty members, erased speech on whiteboards, and interrogated students accused of expressions of bias (whom the University calls ‘offenders’).”
The lawsuit argues that the determination of bias is “completely subjective,” citing the university’s declaration that the “most important indication of bias is your own feelings” and that bias-related incidents “do not always result in unfair treatment that violates nondiscrimination laws.”
“Under this regime, the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak,” the lawsuit contends.
There are also signs that the state of free expression at the University of Michigan is trending in the wrong direction.
The university announced last month that it would amend its Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to prohibit “bias-related misconduct.”
Speech First believes this will have a “profound chilling effect on protected expression” because of the “utter lack of clear notice about the line between permissible and prohibited conduct.”
Speech First is a member organization that represents students at colleges across the nation. Plaintiffs in Tuesday’s lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, are students who attend the University of Michigan.
A sophomore quoted in the lawsuit said free speech is permitted on campus “only if your ideals align with those the University imposed on us.”
“In other words, people have their right to freedom of speech and expression,” the student said, “but only until their beliefs no longer align with the so-called ‘correct’ beliefs, then people are not allowed to freely express those opinions.”
Another student acknowledged hiding “my political views and opinions from nearly everyone I have encountered here at the university” out of fear of reprisal.
A third student recounted being called a racist for supporting President Trump.
“I was talking to a friend in the hallway today, [who] also supported Donald Trump, and someone was listening into our conversation,” the student said. “After about 30 seconds of my friend and I having a private discussion, we were both called racists, which is simply not true.”
The Ann Arbor institution is not the only university facing a lawsuit over its policies toward speech.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments last month between Marquette University and John McAdams, a professor of political science who was suspended, barred from campus and had his spring classes canceled after he wrote a blog post criticizing a graduate instructor.
The graduate instructor had told students that it was inappropriate to argue against same-sex marriage because it might be offensive to others, according to an audio recording of the class. Mr. McAdams, a conservative, published his criticisms on his personal Marquette Warrior blog, which he maintained since 2002.
Marquette, a private Jesuit university, cited a policy that prohibits professors from criticizing students by name in public forums. It also pointed to hateful messages that the graduate instructor received in emails and online comments after the blog was published.
Mr. McAdams was required to recant his blog post and apologize in order to be reinstated. He refused and sued the university, arguing that the university violated his employment contract and academic freedom.
Young Americans for Freedom also filed a lawsuit in March against Kennesaw State University, a public school in Kennesaw, Georgia.
The student group accused the university of engaging in “viewpoint discrimination” by charging security costs to bring a conservative speaker to campus and by denying the group funds to help offset the costs.
The university said there is “a little more controversy” surrounding the event — a conservation with TownHall editor Katie Pavlich — that would require the presence of security officers.
Kennesaw State University was sued in February by a Christian group challenging the constitutionality of free speech zones on campus.
Both lawsuits were filed on behalf of the students by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“A public university is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, but that marketplace can’t function properly if officials can charge a group ‘security fees’ just because they don’t like what the group is saying, or if officials can provide funding and the best locations only to those sharing ideas that they prefer,” ADF Legal Counsel Travis Barham said in a statement at the time. “Kennesaw State’s byzantine speech policies allow officials to place student organizations into an arbitrary caste system of superiors and inferiors, and to assess security fees that numerous courts in other cases have routinely declared unconstitutional.”