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University Bias

“Bias Reporting Systems” are a major threat to campus free speech. It’s up to state legislators to do something about them.

Washington University Chancellor Teaches Class on Campus Free Speech
Chancellor Andrew Martin holds his class syllabus on his way to his office at Washington University in St. Louis, MO on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. (Photo by Nick Schnelle for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Sunshine State is leading the way in education reform. Florida recently enacted legislation that increases transparency on campuses and redirects our public colleges and universities toward expanding knowledge and forging citizens rather than appeasing partisan interests and accrediting agencies. The state’s institutions of higher learning will now be far less inclined to act as ideological training grounds, discriminating against individuals and groups because of certain views and beliefs. 

However, state legislators still have work ahead of them. They must develop and pass laws that immobilize and dismantle Bias Reporting Systems (BRSs). Increasingly prevalent on American campuses, BRSs are a major threat to First Amendment Rights. According to a report from Speech First, there has been a 200 percent increase in BRSs over the last five years alone. Of the 820 colleges and universities the organization examined, more than half currently have BRSs in operation.

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BRSs are meant to monitor, investigate, and discipline students for “bias incidents.” Students are encouraged to submit anonymous reports on one another for anything they believe fits this description. One easily understands why they quickly go sideways: “bias” is entirely subjective, and colleges and universities often define it as anything a student happens to find “offensive.” Essentially, BRSs turn students into informants, incentivizing them to snitch on each other to carry out personal vendettas and grievances. Due process and the essential exchange of ideas are, more often than not, the victims. 

Speech First, the organization mentioned above, sued the University of Central Florida in February 2021, contending that the university’s BRS (the “Just Knights Response Team”), violated foundational free-speech rights. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Speech First stating that the BRS does chill student speech and leads to self-censorship because “No reasonable college student wants to run the risk of being accused of “offensive,” “hostile,” “negative,” or “harmful” conduct—let alone “hate or bias. Nor would the average college student want to run the risk that the University will “track” her, “monitor” her, or mount a “comprehensive response” against her.” This past September, UCF settled, agreeing not only to eliminate its BRS and pay Speech First $35,000 in fees, but also to modify other campus policies to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

This was a groundbreaking win, but what’s needed is a comprehensive approach to addressing BRSs that must now come from elected officials. 

We need legislation that targets the primary purveyors of these discriminatory policies, namely departments that deceptively operate under the cover of “diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.” These departments divide students and suppress and suffocate speech and viewpoint diversity by replacing valuable skills such as critical thinking with paranoia and self-censorship.

Legislation should outline the responsibilities and obligations that public colleges and universities have for preserving First Amendment rights and further forbid any policy that, either by design or in practice, baits students to report incidents of “bias,” “offensive or unwanted speech,” and “microaggressions.” 

Specificity is key. Often, free-speech legislation is simply too broad, allowing institutions of higher learning to get away with violating protected speech by issuing a token statement in support of the First Amendment or signing onto the Chicago Principles for Free Expression with no one to hold them accountable to these statements.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, legislation needs to financially punish colleges and universities in a serious way for BRSs and other campus policies that violate First Amendment rights. There should be an avenue for students to seek personal damages against a college or university that has violated their protected speech. And in the case of public institutions of higher learning, the state should promise to withhold funding as long as the college or university remains in breach. Colleges and universities are financial behemoths. They have been, for the most part, unphased by individual lawsuits and even criticism from alumni. But because states hold the purse strings, they have an opportunity to hit them where it hurts. 

I am planning to introduce legislation in the Florida House of Representatives this term that will address the issue of BRSs. I encourage my colleagues and elected officials in other states to draft legislation according to these model policies. It is essential we continue to protect the Constitution on campus and ensure that forums of education are delivering on their promise of cultivating young minds, central to which is fostering ideas, not erasing them.

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