Jacques: UM feels a lot like the USSR

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The thought police are alive and well at the University of Michigan.

Take a close look at some of the university’s speech policies and you may feel like you’ve been transported back to East Germany or the USSR, where these regimes quashed dissent and were constantly listening for any contrary point of view.

UM’s campus conduct guide includes a “bias response team” that encourages students to report instances of speech they find offensive or troublesome. And guess what? They are relaying plenty of so-called abuses — anything that rubs against a campus culture that bows to political correctness.

Conservative students beware.

This framework serves to chill opposing views and has earned the university a federal lawsuit, filed earlier this month by a group called Speech First.

UM is an egregious example of how public institutions are limiting the free expression and debate of ideas — something that seems in opposition to the whole point of a college campus. And it is also creating a climate of suspicion on campus by encouraging students to spy on one another. They never know who they can trust.

According to the complaint: “The University’s disciplinary code prohibits ‘harassment’ and ‘bullying,’ and further increases the potential penalties if such actions were motivated by ‘bias.’ All of those concepts, as the University interprets and applies them, can capture staggering amounts of protected speech and expression.”

That’s the heart of the problem in this case.

Nicole Neily, president and founder of Speech First, is hopeful this case will modify UM’s speech policies and draw attention to the war on free expression and civil rights on campuses around the country. Neily is passionate about these issues, and they are personal to her. Her Japanese-American grandparents met at an internment camp during World War II, so she understands government overstepping its bounds.

Neily started Speech First earlier this year as a nonprofit membership association focused on fighting restrictions on free speech on university campuses. Anyone concerned with the future of the First Amendment can join, including students and parents.

“Students should be able to express themselves without fear of retribution,” Neily says.

The university’s system of encouraging anonymous tattletales (with real consequences for accused students) is “not workable,” she argues.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that at least 231 colleges in the U.S. have similar bias response teams, but says UM’s is one of the more established.

Speech First reports that more than 150 incidents of alleged bias have been investigated by the university in the last year alone. The instances of bias can come in any form, whether “offensive” posters, social media posts or comments in class.

UM defines bias as being both intentional and unintentional and that “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”

Schools officials following up on these reports can discipline the offending students in different ways, including mandating “restorative justice,” “individualized education,” or “unconscious bias training.”

Sounds like brainwashing to me.

No wonder some students feel like their speech rights are being infringed upon. Why risk talking about contentious topics like immigration or politics when a fellow student overhearing the conversation could so easily report being offended?

The lawsuit caught the attention of Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In a recent piece, he wrote UM’s bias response team smacks of East Germany and George Orwell’s “1984.”

“I’ve been concerned for quite some time about these speech restrictions on campuses and the future of the First Amendment,” von Spakovsky told me. “It’s so Draconian that if you say something that might offend someone else, you could get disciplined or thrown out.”

The university’s regents meet today for the first time since the lawsuit, and they plan to discuss their response. The regents should seriously consider revising this framework. If they don’t, lawmakers should demand it.

“The window of acceptable discourse is closing,” Neily says. “We are sending a message to schools.”