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Lawsuit claims UM disciplinary code curbs free speech

The University of Michigan Union
Wikimedia Commons
Student Union at University of Michigan

A new free speech advocacy group, Speech First, has filed a federallawsuit against the University of Michigan, alleging the U of M's disciplinary code is unconstitutional.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims the U of M's speech code and its bias response system chills free speech and expression and violates the First Amendment.

"We believe that the school maintains policies and has taken action that have the purpose and effect of limiting speech that certain students may find offensive," said Nicole Neily, president of Speech First.

"Terms like 'bullying', 'harassment' and 'bias-related misconduct' are very vague so it's very difficult for students to know what they can be in trouble for," said Neily.

The lawsuit says U of M defines harassment as "unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual." 

According to the lawsuit, the U of M Bias Response Team, which receives complaints of bias and is charged with investigating and possibly punishing them, says bias "can be a hurtful action based on who someone is as a person. The most important indication of bias is your own feelings." 

The lawsuit said that  because the U of M definition of bias is highly subjective, "any student who offers an opinion that may be deemed by another student to be 'hurtful' to his or her 'feelings' risks an investigation from the university’s disciplinary apparatus and the potential for punishment ranging from 'restorative justice' and 'individual education' to formal disciplinary action."

"They're not just going with what's objectively offensive. It's what somebody perceives," said Neily. "So under that regime, the most sensitive student effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak."

Neily said even if a student isn't punished, just the prospect of an investigation may deter some from expressing unpopular or controversial views.

A U of M spokesperson declined to comment because the school had not yet been served with the complaint.