FIRE Releases New Report on Bias Response Teams

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has released an enlightening and troubling new report on the growing prevalence of bias response teams in higher education.

Bias response teams, which this blog has covered many times in the past, encourage students to report, often anonymously, “bias incidents” that they have witnessed on campus, which are then investigated either by teams of university bureaucrats or even by the campus police. Faculty and students alike have been subject to investigations and discipline for constitutionally protected speech at schools that have instituted such teams. FIRE’s new report gives us are best look yet into the workings of these systems nationwide.
Among the key findings (from the executive summary):

42% report speech to members of law enforcement or campus security officers, even though the teams deliberately solicit reports of a wide variety of non-criminal speech and activity.

12% of teams include at least one administrator dedicated to media relations, suggesting that part of the purpose of such teams is to deter and respond to controversies that might embarrass the institution.

Fewer than a third of teams included faculty members, whose absence diminishes the likelihood that the team will have a meaningful understanding of academic freedom.

These statistics help to shed light on the potential harm that these systems may do to free expression on campus. As FIRE write in the report:

Bias Response Teams, when armed with open-ended definitions of “bias,” staffed by law enforcement and student conduct administrators, and left without training on freedom of expression, represent an emerging risk to free and open discourse on campus and in the classroom. Bias Response Teams create—indeed, they are intended to create—a chilling effect on campus expression. Even if a Bias Response Team does not have the power to take punitive action, the prospect of an official investigation may make students and faculty more cautious about what opinions they dare to express.

Beyond First Amendment concerns, encouraging students and faculty to anonymously report one another to administrators for subversive or offensive views is illiberal, and antithetical to a campus open to the free exchange of ideas. While universities should certainly be listening to their students and offering resources to those who encounter meaningful difficulties in their lives on campus, the posture taken by many Bias Response Teams is all too likely to create profound risks to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and academic freedom on campus.

The whole report, which is full of much detailed information on these systems, is necessary reading for anyone concerned with the state of free speech on America’s college campuses.