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University of Michigan changes definitions of "bullying" and "harassing" as DOJ looks into lawsuit

The University of Michigan Union
Wikimedia Commons
The University updated its definitions of "bullying" and "harassment" Monday as a free speech lawsuit against the school continues.

The University of Michigan announced Monday that it had updated its Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to provide narrower definitions of “bullying” and “harassment.”

This came on the same day the United States Department of Justice expressed theirinterest in a free speech lawsuit against the University of Michigan.

The lawsuit was filed in May by non-profit and First Amendment watchdog, Speech First, Inc. The suit claims the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities is an infringement of First Amendment rights, and specifically calls out the policy’s definitions of harassment and bullying for being too “vague.”

The definitions previously included several possible interpretations of the terms coming from Merriam-Webster Dictionary and other university policies.  

Effective Monday, the university’s new definitions for bullying and harassment, shown below, no longer include the dictionary definitions—they’re simply drawn from Michigan’s state laws.

Bullying: Any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, directed toward a person that is intended to cause or that a reasonable person would know is likely to cause, and that actually causes, physical harm or substantial emotional distress and thereby adversely affects the ability of another person to participate in or benefit from the university’s educational programs or activities. Bullying does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose. Harassing: Conduct directed toward a person that includes repeated or continuing unconsented contact that would cause a reasonable individual to suffer substantial emotional distress and that actually causes the person to suffer substantial emotional distress. Harassing does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in a press release that the university had already been reviewing policies to “ensure they were consistent with First Amendment principles,” and that the lawsuit just accelerated that process. He could not be reached for further comment.

The lawsuit also claims the university’s definition of “bias” to be overly broad. It alleges that the role of the University’s Bias Response Team— a non-disciplinary body that investigates self-reported incidents of bias-- serves to limit speech.

Speech First objected particularly to language in the university’s policy that says “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” At the time of publication, that language is still present on the university’s website.

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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