Anonymous reporting on individual thoughts and opinions and the subsequent investigations are reminiscent of dystopian novels like 1984. The “whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought,” as George Orwell wrote.
We are witnessing the same narrowing of thought on college campuses today.
Universities have created “Bias Response Teams” to “monitor and investigate student and faculty speech, directing the attention of law enforcement and student conduct administrators towards the expression of students and faculty members,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The survey found that “political affiliation or speech” could be grounds for a team to report bias, a chilling threat to free expression.
FIRE surveyed 232 such teams in 2017 and found that one-third did not disclose their members to the public.
FIRE’s report includes a list of examples of Bias Response Teams’ activities on campus. At Grand Valley State University, students reported two professors to a Bias Response Team after expressing “conservative social opinions.” One of the professors was reported because they “declined to use alternative gender pronouns.” A student publication at the University of San Diego lost university funding after satirizing “safe spaces” on campus, which resulted in Bias Response Team reports.
University of Wisconsin-Platteville students were reported after dressing up as “Three Blind Mice” for Halloween because of an aversion to rodents. Or wearing sunglasses at night. Suspicions abound, but these ideas are as reasonable as any for equating a children’s song with being insensitive to individuals with vision impairments.
Fortunately, state lawmakers are pushing back. Since the release of Stanley Kurtz’s and the Goldwater Institute’s “Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal” last month, lawmakers in Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, to name a few, have begun work on resolutions and legislation to protect free expression. The model legislation prompts state university systems to adopt mission statements that protect free speech and prohibits the limiting of free expression to sections of campus dubbed “free speech zones.” The bill also establishes a process for university officials to intervene when free expression is stifled, such as when invited speakers are prevented from taking the podium at a campus event.
Bias Response Teams cause arbitrary investigations that cause fear and stifle free speech. State lawmakers should consider legislative proposals that protect free expression on campus. All of a campus should be a safe space for all kinds of ideas.