The Chill In the Air At University of Michigan

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 suit was backed by Speech First, founded by Nicole Neily, whose mission is to defend free speech on campus.

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.

38 thoughts on “The Chill In the Air At University of Michigan

  1. Skink

    That there is a “response team” isn’t surprising. Is the light on the golf cart blue or just yellow? Will someone please tell me just what the fuck “bias” is?

    As for the reporting and legal stuff–this is just random words from a preliminary injunction hearing, which given the number of suits appearing in the case, was probably extensive. No order has been issued, but the reporter takes the random words to be an “indication” as to how she will rule. I’d bet it indicates the reporter hasn’t been in many courthouses.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m going out on a limb here to suggest that “bias” is whatever anyone complaining of it says it is, and certainly whatever the BRT believes it to be. You want actual rules? You are so old.

      As for the reporting, of course it sucks. Have you not met the media? But then, the words emitting from the judges mouth can’t be unsaid. She doesn’t see a threat. Seems fairly straightforward.

    2. Nick Lidakis

      “Is the light on the golf cart blue or just yellow? ”

      Comrade, any lights would attract attention.


    3. Erik H.

      “Bias” is “unfairly and inaccurately pre-judging someone based on their group membership.”

      Sadly, “Bias” also includes “any claims that the judgment was accurate.” Also, it includes “any claims that the judgment was fair.” Finally, bias also includes “any claims that the accuser is themselves biased or is making a false, malicious, or inadvertently inaccurate accusation”

      If you noticed that there is no bias-free manner of defense against a claim of bias, you win a prize!

      1. David Lewis

        Sure there is, silly. Saying “What I said was right!,” just reinforces the bias, and compounds bad behavior. But saying, “I didn’t say anything,” or “I said something different from that that’s not biased,” are both a “bias free manner of defense.” So someone who saw what you did should’t get a prize, she should go to the back of the class.

  2. Raccoon Strait

    Was there any discussion about how and when an accused ‘bias speaker’ gets to agree, or not agree to participate? It surely appears to me that the arrival of the ‘Bias Response Team’ precludes any opportunity to agree or not agree. If they think that not agreeing after the arrival of a response team in something only sort of short of Swat Team clothing has any effect, then they are deluding only themselves. What was that Judge thinking?

    1. SHG Post author

      You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…

      1. Kathleen Casey

        Except your “expression of bias” has been recorded on your criminal record oops dossier oops student record. Whether or not a matter of fact oops truth.

    2. RKW

      I am disappointed with the Michigan student body. In my day no one would have sued the university over the Bias Response Team. They would have gotten their own red, white and blue golf cart with the name “Constitutional Response Team” emblazoned on it to chase the Bias Response Team around campus and loudly remind them that everyone has the right to reject their petty efforts at thought control. Indeed, the BRT/CRT races would soon evolve into one of the most enjoyable highlights of the students’ day.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    If a few students show their mettle and rely on UM’s representations to the court that the BRT is toothless, perhaps the PC pendulum will near its apogee at UM. A drinking game that awards points every time the BRT shows up could be entertaining.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      A few good students you say? I’m not sure those over-sensitive scUM punks could handle the truth.

  4. Frank

    And what happens when you tell this “Bias Response Team” in their little yellow golf cart to go piss up a rope and suck the wet end? This is the camel’s nose under the tent. Whose to say next year this little Inquisitorial Squad won’t have the power to convene formal hearings with actual consequences? For some reason, this judge refuses to see the long view.

    1. SHG Post author

      I suspect that while the BRT isn’t a “disciplinary” force in itself, there’s nothing to preclude it from filing a complaint against some miscreant. Especially if they double down by responding with a microaggression.

      1. LY

        How about a macro-aggression? Dis-agree to participate with a can of pepper spray, and an air-horn.

        “They came at me aggressively and I feared for my safety”

      2. Nick Lidakis

        What if a few U-M students created a fake secret society called Force Against Response Teams. And said fake society started distributing flyers that said that not only is BRT a bunch of poopie heads, but that no student is obligated to talk to BRT and BRT can’t legally harm you.

        And the purpose of this to make said agency spend an inordinate amount of time spinning its golf cart wheels looking for the secret, nebulous Force Against Response Teams in order to defend its agency’s honor, thus relegating bias reports as a distant second to its core mission.

        Not that I’m advocating or hinting that any of this should really happen, but would that be a micro-aggression?

  5. Skink

    From the intrepid reporter:
    “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.”

    That’s probably judge-speak for “you’re doing a shitty job of explaining your argument. Do it again.” There’s someone that can explain it better, but he’s probably sentencing someone. Or sleeping. Maybe both.

    Getting a PI is really hard. You’d have a better chance of getting Kate Upton to serve you breakfast in bed. From reading the stuff, I don’t know where the “implicit threat” language comes from, but it isn’t mentioned in the reply memo. In the context of a PI hearing, it could very well be a throwaway argument.

    1. SHG Post author

      I love speculating about what’s really going on in some judge’s noggin almost as much as I love people who don’t hit the reply button. Over and over.

      1. Skink

        Why not speculate? Didn’t the reporter? At least I have a reasonable basis–I’ve been there. I do at least 6 PI oral arguments a year, seemingly forever. Not once has Kate delivered breakfast.

        I’m old. The reply button is confusing and I concentrate on doing the right math. Neither works out all the time. I recently had to remove my diaper to get the correct answer, which was 21. That was traumatic. Why don’t you feel bad for making me get naked and being traumatized?

        1. Sgt. Schultz

          When there’s a paradigm shift (I love that word) that imposes a potential impairment on 1st Amendment rights, judges tend to be more inclined to issue injunctions to maintain the status quo ante. After all, they survived up to now without BRTs. They will survive until it’s decided.

          1. SHG Post author

            Wait, are you suggesting that chilling the speech of students in college, while they are in college, while they are subject to being turned into racist pariahs for whatever the hell peculiarly sensitive but passionate person calls “bias,” gives rise to irreparable harm?

  6. Jacob DiMare

    This one wins you a ‘nothing-burger of the week’ award. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

  7. Ross

    I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the BRT would not be supportive of a special showing of the Clint Eastwood masterpiece Gran Torino on campus.

  8. BTF

    I have to disagree. The BRT is serving a very important function here.

    If you don’t have clubs/activities for the self righteous busy bodies to self identify, how will I know later who not to hire? After all, isn’t that the real point of college to identify who is employable?

    1. SHG Post author

      I hadn’t considered BRT membership as resume fodder. Hell, it could get you a job at the New York Times, at minimum.

  9. Joseph

    UM also has a right to free speech, which includes the right to condemn speech it doesn’t like as well as to dispatch goon squads to speechify at speech it doesn’t like. Until UM crosses the line from responding to speech with speech to responding to speech with coercion, forbidding it from doing so is prior restraint.

      1. Joseph

        Eugene Volokh suggested that state and local governments had First Amendment rights against the federal government in a blog post from 2015, guided by the holding in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans.

        While I was wrong, I would have been less wrong to say that UM may have a right to free speech.

  10. Nemo

    A team of meddling do-gooders whose purpose is to scold do-badders for the content of their speech? Yeah, nothing dangerous in that, and it doesn’t matter that they are semi-officially backed by the uni.

    Probably just as well I’ll never enroll there, because I would be calling the group things like “Speech Bully Squad” and “Speech Purity Commissioners*”, and I’m quite sure that words like those would constitute literal violence against their cause.

    Or maybe calling them the Biased Response Team would cause someone to file a Title IX complaint, because that’s hateful and oppressive, and Something Must Be Done to Stop Hateful Speech, such as letting everyone on campus know who it’s OK to hate. Haters gotta hate, so why not give them appropriate targets for expressing their emotions?

    *I kinda want to be there for a semester, just to see if any of the college kidz get it, when I call the team members “commissioners”, especially history majors. Or maybe it would take longer than a semester to encounter someone who got it. It’s an educational institution, after all.

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