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University of Michigan files response to free speech lawsuit

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel at podium
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel responded today to a lawsuit alledging the school "chills" free speech.

The University of Michigan filed a response Friday to a lawsuit claiming its policies hinder free speech.

The lawsuit was filed in May by First Amendment watchdog group Speech First -- the first lawsuit the group has filed since its formation earlier this year. It calls out the university’s definitions of bullying and harassment for being too broad, as well as the school’s Bias Response Team, which they say could make students hesitant to share controversial opinions.

The Bias Response Team is a group of trained staff members who are available to talk to students who feel they’ve been the target of a bias incident on campus. The group cannot discipline perpetrators or even investigate claims.

University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel says they “simply council and and advise.”

The university did tighten the definitions of bullying and harassment earlier this week — on the same day the United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case. But they’re taking the stance that their policies were never unlawful. Schlissel says the lawsuit grossly mischaracterized the school’s stance on free speech even prior to the changes they made.

“I don’t believe we were out of compliance with the law beforehand. Speech is alive and well and thriving on the University of Michigan campus,” he says. “It is not inconsistent to value free speech… while at the same time value an inclusive campus community.”

Schlissel also maintains the school was not “caving” by altering their definitions of bullying and harassment. He says administrators had been talking about revising them for a while, and the lawsuit just sped up the process. Schlissel sees the situation, as well as the DOJ’s interest in the case, as simply a suggestion for how the school can improve.

“I don’t consider it caving … my obligation is to make the University of Michigan the best university it can be. When people point out things that we could be doing better, it’s almost sort of my obligation that I consider them seriously.”

The University of Michigan is no stranger to issues of free speech. A landmark Supreme Court case in 1989 determined a rule prohibiting hate speech at the university was unconstitutional. More recently, the campus community disagreed this past school year on whether to allow controversial speakers to come to campus, including white supremacist Richard Spencer. The issue was avoided when Spencer decided to indefinitely postpone his visit to Ann Arbor.

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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