Michigan Fires Back on Free Speech Lawsuit

The University of Michigan blasted a Justice Department-backed free speech lawsuit against it Friday, calling it “a false caricature” of the institution’s rules on free expression.

Last month, a new watchdog group, Speech First, sued the university, alleging its policy definitions on “harassment” and “bias” were overly broad, unconstitutional and would chill free speech. The organization also criticized and called for the disbandment of the university’s Bias Response Team, a common tool at colleges and universities for helping handle incidents on campus that could be racist, sexist or otherwise prejudicial.

The Trump administration latched on to the lawsuit earlier this month, filing a “statement of interest” in federal court. The Justice Department agreed that the university’s policies could likely limit campus free speech. The department has also supported lawsuits that challenge “free speech zones” on college campuses, which generally are areas of campus where students are confined to protest or pass out literature.

Right after the Michigan lawsuit was filed, the university changed its definitions of “bullying” and “harassment,” which it said it had already intended to do.

But it defended the Bias Response Team in a court brief filed Friday, saying that the lawsuit mischaracterized its purpose. The team doesn’t have the authority to discipline students, nor investigate incidents on campus; it merely “provides support” to students when they want it, the university said. Never before have students been punished for bullying or harassment just for expressing their point of view, it said.

Speech First is representing three anonymous students who allege they have been shut down when they tried to discuss conservative views on controversial topics such as gun rights, immigration and abortion.

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