by David Hacker
In the wake of student unrest this fall over increasingly absurd charges of racism, “microaggressions,” and speech, university “inclusivity” czars are upping their game. Several colleges have announced new bias incident reporting systems, where students can [anonymously?] report offensive or disagreeable speech and subject their peers to closed-door investigations, intimidation, and punishment. If you think these new programs sound like censorship squads intended to stifle campus debate, you are right.
At least one university that rolled out a new bias reporting system has forgotten its past misdeeds with the First Amendment. In 2005, Emily Brooker was a social work student at Missouri State University. One day, her professor came to class and announced a group project: they would write a letter to the Missouri state legislature advocating in favor of same-sex adoption and parenting. Not writing a letter in support of their own position, no. This wasn’t an academic exercise. This was coerced advocacy of one position. The students would have been forced to sign their names to the letter, and the professor would have kindly mailed it for them.
Emily did not want to sign the letter, as her position on the issue was different from the professor’s. She approached him and asked for an alternate assignment. He initially said no but then gave permission.
But several weeks later, the professor filed a level three grievance against Emily—the worst charge of academic misconduct in MSU’s School of Social Work. What followed was nothing short of Maoist-style bullying and censorship. MSU administrators summoned Brooker to a Star Chamber hearing, forbade her from bringing any witnesses (including her parents), and interrogated her about, and belittled, her religious beliefs.
In the end, MSU gave Emily a choice: sign a contract agreeing to never allow her faith to affect her studies or leave the university. As a senior, Emily had little choice.
Thankfully, she sought legal counsel, and Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf. Within days, MSU settled the case, ripped up the contract, allowed Emily to finish her degree without further censorship., MSU even agreed to pay for Emily’s graduate degree in social work, if she decided to pursue one.
MSU later commissioned an outside team of social work professors to investigate what went wrong. What they found was incredible. They found that ideological intimidation and censorship was so rampant among their social work faculty that students were afraid to share their ideas in class and avoided certain professors. In the end, the team recommended that MSU close the School of Social Work and start over because the environment was “toxic” beyond repair.
That was 2006. Fast forward nearly ten years. The same university this month launched a bias response team, which has unleashed the censors once again. No doubt, MSU wants to avoid what happened at its sister institution in Columbia, but the unconstitutionality of its new program is plain.
MSU charged the team with “promptly responding to bias-related incidents” on campus, and “educating” about bias and the university’s “diversity and inclusion values.”
MSU plans to train “bystanders on how to respond when they witness discriminatory speech and conduct.” Here’s a prediction: MSU won’t be training bystanders to respond by encouraging more speech. And MSU’s bias team will review “reported bias-related incidents” and refer “them to appropriate University entities.” In other words, if you hear something, don’t say something; report it for punishment and re-education.
To say that MSU’s bias team will further erode the marketplace of ideas on campus is an understatement. In fact, the unbridled discretion given to the team is unconstitutional in and of itself because it has the potential to lead to viewpoint discrimination. For that reason alone, MSU should scrap the program.
But here’s another reason MSU should reconsider: Emily Brooker. MSU’s administration may have changed since 2006, but the Constitution hasn’t. And by implementing the Bias Response Team, MSU is violating students’ rights to free speech once again. So much for inclusivity.
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