A person, a student, says the word. Maybe it’s a word that is universally recognized as horrible and unacceptable. Maybe it’s a word that was acceptable yesterday, but has been determined to be unacceptable during the overnight parsing of the list of words that must never be uttered. Maybe it’s a word that, well, only the most finely tuned ear can discern as being improper, based upon its Latin root as bastardized by middle English and expressed in Beowulf.
“This must be stopped,” someone within earshot decides on behalf of some other marginalized community of which he’s no member. After all, he gets virtue points for being an excellent ally, and can proudly proclaim to those whose validation he desperately seeks that he was not “complicit.” What must he do? What can he do?!?
Although no ruling was issued, the University of Michigan’s “Bias Response Team” (BRT) isn’t an implicit threat to student free speech rights, said U.S. District Court Judge Linda V. Parker. The program relies on student reports of “biased” speech on campus and contacts the alleged speaker to offer guidance on speaking in a school-approved way. Students who are contacted are not required to respond.
No, it’s not quite the Spanish Inquisition. They won’t put you on the rack or burn you at the stake. Not literally. But a group of designated students, usually in t-shirts that proclaim their authority much like the cops have “POLICE” emblazoned on the back of their vests, will race to your location in their specially designed golf cart to deal with the threat of violence presented by your “biased” speech and, if they manage to get there in time, save the life of anyone who heard this traumatic utterance.
And Judge Linda Parker doesn’t see how this might pose a threat to free speech.
“The university considers this voluntary and the student has no obligation to come in,” Parker said, referring to the BRT’s policy. “You say there is an implicit threat. I don’t see that.
“There’s not a lot of teeth here,” Parker said later, adding that the BRT’s policies don’t appear to pose a credible threat or cause concrete harm.
It’s true that the BRT can’t summarily execute, or expel, anyone for wrongthink or wrongtalk. In the scheme of concrete harm, the BRT is shooting blanks, provided things don’t turn physical when the recipient of their bias-response wisdom doesn’t show appreciation with an unkind response, such as I’m inclined to do when people try to tell me which words they will allow me to use.
Then again, the threat of social stigmatization on campus, being outed as a pariah, one of the innumerable -ist words that means you will never have friends or a date again, that people will cross the street just to be sure whatever ideas you have in your disgusting head don’t fly out and hit them, splattering over their Che t-shirt, is real.
It is true that there is no immunity from consequences for the words and thoughts one chooses to offer to others. But this isn’t enforcement by reaction, where the person to whom the utterance is made replies, “yo, dude, that’s a pretty bad thing to say and now I don’t want to hang with you anymore.” This is an official response, t-shirts and golf cart. Even from a distance, you can spy the BRT racing toward a racist. And like the black guy on the curb as the cops search his car because Heien, you know who the miscreant is. And then word spreads, as the game of cellphone (previously known as telephone) gets played and you’re tainted as a Milo sycophant.
The students claim their right to free speech has been chilled from speaking openly about their views on subjects including gun rights, illegal immigration, abortion, the welfare system, gender identity, affirmative action and Title IX.
“University officials have a ton of power to trigger this process,” Speech First Attorney Jeffrey Harris said. “That can lead to viewpoint or content targeting.”
Harris may be underplaying his argument. Can any discussion of undocumented immigrants not be targeted? Even worse, if the phrase employed isn’t “undocumented immigrants,” it’s not merely unwoke. It’s violent xenophobia. And don’t even ask about whether there can be any discussion of abortion that doesn’t evoke outrage. So “lead to” seems aspirational.
The lawsuit alleges more than 150 reports of “expressions of bias,” through posters, fliers, social media, whiteboards, verbal comments and classroom behavior have been investigated by the university’s Bias Response Team since April 2017.
The group claims free speech is being attacked on college campuses by implementing “free speech zones,” giving opponents of unpopular speech a “heckler’s veto,” and the use of civility requirements to create “safe spaces.” The group claims it wants to defend speech of all kinds – “left, right, popular, unpopular,” according to its website.
Michigan’s response is that they’re just trying to be supportive and educational.
In its response to the lawsuit, UM said there is nothing in its policies that inhibit those students from engaging in those discussions.
UM’s response states that that the Bias Response Team is not a disciplinary body. Its work is purely supportive and educational, and it works only with students ‘who agree to participate.'”
And if college can’t serve to re-educate its own students who think bad thoughts, who speak bad words, can it be said to have fulfilled its mission of eradicating the heretics that makes its campus an unsafe place to its most vulnerable students? Just wear a sweater when not agreeing with the BRTs who speed to educate you of your unsupportive ways, lest you catch a chill.