At UM, we support our students and their rights

By Mark S. Schlissel

A lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Speech First alleges that the University of Michigan’s policy against harassment and bullying and its Bias Response Team infringe on the First Amendment rights of students. The U.S. Department of Justice recently issued a statement in support of this suit.

The suit paints a false caricature by mischaracterizing certain policies and programs, while ignoring policy and practice that clearly reaffirm our deep and longstanding commitment to free speech.

People walk and ride through The Denison Archway at West Hall.

Let’s start with facts.

U-M’s Bias Response Team is first and foremost a support resource for students who come to U-M to learn. It refers students who experience bias to other campus resources as appropriate, and educates the university community about issues related to bias.

The BRT does not investigate reports or issue findings or punishments. It was never set up as a disciplinary body and has no such authority. Additionally, students involved are not required to meet with the BRT, but may do so on a voluntary basis.

Here are examples of how this works:

  • This spring, a student reported that a group project teammate wrote offensive statements regarding the student’s national origin so the whole team could see it on a website. The student who wrote the offensive statements agreed to meet with a BRT staff member. They discussed the seriousness of incidents like these for campus climate and other students’ sense of belonging.  The student expressed remorse, and both the reporting student and the writer of the statements agreed to meet. The reporting student accepted an apology.
  • Last year, a student reported that another student urinated on a rug inside a university room open to all students and used for prayer and reflection. BRT reached out to the reporting student to provide support and also worked with facilities teams and the Muslim Student Association executive board to determine the best path forward to remedy the damage and prevent future incidents. In this case, the incident involved a crime, so university police, not the BRT, undertook an investigation.

This is precisely how the educational process should work. It’s about teaching good citizenship – a value that seems in short supply in current national political discourse – and working to reduce bullying and harassment by providing resources and encouraging students to look at their behaviors from a different point of view. It does not involve the suppression of protected speech.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.

One of the challenges faced by all institutions (higher ed and otherwise) is how to address harmful acts of bullying and harassment. I hope we can all agree that graduates going out into the world are better served by understanding the need to prevent bullying and harassment – whether in their careers or personal lives.  

These behaviors are prohibited in our Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. U-M has recently clarified its definitions of harassment and bullying to make them simpler to understand and consistent with state law, assuring that our efforts to foster an inclusive environment do not unintentionally inhibit constitutionally protected speech.   

When actions may violate that policy or be illegal, we do investigate, but not through the BRT.

However, no student at the university has been disciplined for harassing or bullying based on the mere expression of a point of view. Our policy on free speech is unambiguous on this point. We strongly disagree with the premise that our policies and practices have a chilling effect on speech as claimed in the lawsuit.

Unfortunately, the allegations in the lawsuit mischaracterize the reality of life on campus. Rather than giving these fundamental ideas the treatment they deserve, the suit instead seems to make outrage its goal.

Our clearly stated First Amendment policies and practices encourage a hotbed of debate on campus and are not the chilling force portrayed in the suit. 

Since 2015, conservative political views have been expressed, debated or encouraged by scores of national speakers and campus forums, dozens of articles in student publications, and a number of student organizations formally recognized by U-M. In fact, conservative speakers who were unable to speak elsewhere (Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, David Horowitz and Dinesh D’Souza to name a few) have shared their ideas and beliefs here at the University of Michigan.

The lawsuit’s characterizations are cynical and sad. They are cynical because of the contortions needed to avoid recognizing the many examples of conservative speech at our university; they are sad because the freedoms and values at stake are too important.

It is our role as educators to teach students to marshal facts and use rigorous argument to achieve their goals, and also to recognize that practicing civil discourse will be key to their future success and broader influence.

Free speech rights and maintaining an inclusive and supportive learning environment are not mutually exclusive. At the University of Michigan, we take very seriously our responsibility to both of these values. We know that navigating the inherent tension is difficult, but we enthusiastically embrace the challenge – because it’s the right thing to do for our students and it’s necessary for us to fulfill our mission as a university.

Mark S. Schlissel is the president of the University of Michigan.