University of Michigan Engaged in Free Speech Legal Battle

A new student organization stepping into the college campus free speech fight has sued the University of Michigan over its speech code. In a lawsuit filed May 8, Speech First alleges the University of Michigan’s “vaguely worded” speech code protects hearers’ sensibilities at the expense of speakers’ constitutional right to free speech.

The lawsuit marks the first in what could be a series of legal battles brought by the group against offending campuses, Speech First president Nicole Neily said.

The federal lawsuit details the University of Michigan’s attempts to keep the peace. School policy prohibits “harassment” and “bullying” but apparently fails to succinctly define the terms. “Harassment” can be “unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual.”

The school’s Bias Response Team’s website warns, “Bias comes in many forms.” “It can be a hurtful action based on who someone is as a person,” the site says. “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” The site urges students who “feel” like they might have experienced bias to report the incident.

Speech First argues “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak.” Subjective definitions can have a “chilling effect” on campus free speech and leave students and staff susceptible to code violations and penalties, Neily said.

The university defends its speech policy and Bias Response Team as necessary tools for promoting civil engagement on campus.

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Source: Baptist Press