UM asks judge to dismiss speech-code lawsuit as moot

The University of Michigan wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its speech code, arguing that the core issue is moot because the school revised the policies under challenge.

In a Friday court filing, the university also says the plaintiff has no right to make a legal claim because there’s no threat that UM students have or could have faced disciplinary action for harassment or bullying by merely expressing controversial opinions on campus.

“Essentially, what’s happened is our climate around free speech and the activity of this Bias Response Team has been pretty grossly miscategorized in the lawsuit and then in the media,” UM President Mark Schlissel said in a Friday interview, noting the team is made up of counselors with no investigatory or disciplinary authority.

“Free speech is alive and well at University of Michigan, including the kind of political speech that the plaintiffs in this lawsuit argue is being chilled.”

The university is facing a lawsuit by a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group called Speech First, which argues the school’s “overly broad” policies violate the First Amendment. Speech First contends the school’s policy has “chilled” the speech of conservative students who feel deterred from speaking openly for fear of facing discipline.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday got involved in the suit, siding with Speech First and saying UM’s policy, even if well-intentioned, “imposes a system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech.”

The university says the Justice Department and the lawsuit misstated UM policy and the atmosphere around free speech on campus.

Schlissel noted the “dozens” of student groups and outlets for expression of conservative views on campus, including Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans and invitations for prominent conservatives to speak, including Milo Yiannopoulos, Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro in recent years.

Schlissel said the Bias Response Team is part of UM’s efforts to promote an inclusive campus environment, where students — no matter their background, politics or ethnicity — feel equally respected and “able to thrive” on campus.

“These aren’t inconsistent things. You can strongly uphold the First Amendment, while at the same time expressing a value system that says we’re an inclusive campus where everyone deserves mutual respect, and interactions between people who disagree should be civil,” Schlissel said.

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