The University of Michigan quietly updated its speech policies after the Justice Department pointed out that those policies don’t define the offenses they are trying to restrict.
The Justice Department’s statement of interest in the Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel case alleged that Michigan’s rules against “bias” and “bullying” leave those terms undefined, and the university then updated its policies, according to a department press release. The department argued that the University’s speech policies infringe on the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The university defended itself by claiming that the Justice Department “seriously misstated University of Michigan policy and painted a false portrait of speech on [Michigan’s] campus.” The department claimed otherwise in a release noting that Michigan updated its policy.
However, after the Justice Department’s filing, the University of Michigan updated its speech policies. Most notably, the University removed the language stating, “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” The University provides a fuller explanation of its new policies here.
On May 25, 2018, a federal district court noted that Georgia Gwinnett College “amended its Speech Zone and Speech Code Policies” after the Justice Department’s Statement of Interest supporting the plaintiffs’ suit.
Michigan’s Bias Response Team in particular drew attention from the department’s statement of interest. The department argued that the undefined nature of “bias” in the university’s policies chill free speech because those policies vest authority about bias in the “feelings” students have.
“The most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” the Bias Response Policy states.
Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley released a statement slamming the University, saying that “we must not accept” when Universities try to use their authority to stifle principles like “diversity of thought and robust debate.”
“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. 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,” O’Malley said. “The Justice Department will continue to seek opportunities to defend free speech–no matter the political ideology espoused–in order to defend our nation’s great traditions and the ability of its citizens to engage in meaningful discourse.”