Opinion: Fighting for free speech on campus
Washington — On election night 2016, Mark Schlissel, the University of Michigan’s president, addressed more than 1,000 students, declaring that the 90 percent of them who had favored the losing candidate had rejected “hate.” He thereby effectively made those who disagreed with him and with the campus majority eligible to be targets of the university’s “bias response teams.” That his announced contempt for them made him a suitable target of the thought police is a thought that presumably occurred to no one, least of all him.
Now, however, this leader of a public institution is being sued for constitutional violations. So are some members of Michigan’s archetypal administrative bloat — the ever-thickening layer of social-justice crusaders and orthodoxy enforcers who, nationwide, live parasitically off universities whose actual purpose is scholarship. These include Michigan’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, and the director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution. Such bureaucrats have professional stakes in finding inequities to rectify and conflicts to resolve.
A splendid new organization, Speech First, headed by Nicole Neily, is not content merely to respond after the fact to violations of students’ constitutional rights. It is suing to invalidate Michigan’s “elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus” that exists “to suppress and punish speech other students deem ‘demeaning,’ ‘bothersome’ or ‘hurtful.'” Speech First’s complaint notes that “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak.” The university darkly warns that “bias comes in many forms” and “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” Speech First says that Michigan’s edifice of speech regulation, with its Orwellian threats to submit offenders to “restorative justice,” “individual education” and “unconscious bias training,” amounts to unconstitutional prior restraint speech and is too overbroad and vague to give anyone due notice of what is proscribed.
“Verbal conduct” that “victimizes,” or jeopardizes a “social climate” that is “safe and inclusive”? Such vaporous language must have a chilling effect on humor, parody, satire or plain speech about almost anything. What constitutes forbidden “cultural appropriation”? You will be told — after someone, encouraged by the administration to do so, has notified law enforcement.
When The Wall Street Journal’s Jillian Kay Melchior asked Michigan for the records of one year of bias incident reports, “the university thwarted this inquiry by imposing a fee of more than $2,400 for the public records.” If this secretiveness indicates that the university is embarrassed, this is progress.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says bias response teams produce “a surveillance state on campus where students and faculty must guard their every utterance for fear of being reported to and investigated” by bureaucrats. Their profession is the suppression and re-education of those — generally conservatives — whose attitudes and opinions constitute, as Michigan students have learned from Schlissel, “hate.”
FIRE has established a grading system whereby colleges and universities are given green, yellow or red ratings depending on their commitments to freedom of speech and inquiry. Institutions are increasingly interested in earning FIRE’s green approval. FIRE gives Michigan the red rating that identifies a university that has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in National Affairs (“Restoring Free Inquiry on Campus”), note that when, after World War II, the federal government decided to direct scientific and medical research through universities rather than government-run laboratories, there were worries that government might threaten free inquiry on campuses. Today, say Hess and Addison, “ideological homogeneity” in academia is producing “formal policies and practices” whereby “limits on speech and expression have become ingrained in campus culture.” Hess and Addison have a sensible proposal: “Taxpayer funds should not be subsidizing research at higher-education institutions where the conditions of free inquiry are compromised.”
Of the 30 academic institutions that received the most research funding in 2015, six (20 percent) received $4.5 billion from the federal government (11 percent of all federal research funds) — and a red rating from FIRE. According to it, almost 40 percent of all federal research funds went to 25 institutions that have formal policies that restrict constitutionally protected speech.
Michigan ranks third among all universities as a recipient of federal research funding. In 2015, its $735 million in federal funding was 54 percent of the university’s total R&D grants. Although Schlissel is ideologically blinkered, tone deaf and awfully complacent about his own flagrant biases, his bias response teams probably are not worth $735 million to him.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.