Suit alleges UM disciplinary code limits speech

The Detroit News

A new conservative group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the University of Michigan, saying its disciplinary code is unconstitutional because it prohibits free speech.

Speech First, based in Washington, said the disciplinary code is so vague that anyone could be accused of and punished for harassment and bias.

The group, which said it’s suing on behalf of three unnamed students, also objects to the school’s use of a Bias Response Team, which, even if it doesn’t punish someone, has a chilling effect on the campus just by its existence, its suit claims.

This is the first lawsuit filed by Speech First, which has similar criticisms of colleges across the nation. Filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, it names UM President Mark Schlissel, the school’s Board of Regents, and five other school administrators.

“Speech codes like Michigan’s flagrantly violate the First Amendment,” said Nicole Neily, president of Speech First. “A bias response system has no place in America, much less on a modern-day college campus.”

A spokeswoman for the school said Tuesday evening that UM hadn’t been served with the lawsuit yet and had no comment.

The lawsuit said the school believes bias can be a hurtful action based on who someone is as a person. In the school’s words, “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” according to the lawsuit.

As a result, a student whose speech is seen by another student as hurtful to his feelings could be accused of bias, said the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said the school’s Bias Response Team has received 150 reports of alleged expressions of bias since April 2017. They includes posters, fliers, social media, whiteboards, verbal comments and classroom behavior.

Punishment for offenders could range from required training sessions to expulsion, said the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said such rules can be used by the school in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

Several UM students who belong to Speech First have abstained from talking on controversial topics like immigration, abortion or identity politics in fear that a bias complaint would be filed against them, said the lawsuit.