Campus censorship

10 Feb

A different version of this was published last week at American Media Institute Newswire.

Three million of the the 13 million undergraduate students in the U.S. could be hearing their fellow students talk about “Bert” this year.

But they won’t be talking about Bert of Bert and Ernie, or any other Bert they’ve met before.


They’ll be talking about “BRTS,” Bias Report Teams, a new collegiate institution now found on about 232 campuses that serve those 3 million students.

A new report on free speech on American campuses was just released by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a report that tabulates and surveys the rise of Bias Response Teams.

BRTs – composed of students, administrators and law enforcement officials – investigate cases of biased statements, usually made against people because of their membership in a protected class or minority.  Reports can even be made about questions, statements, or other content of classes.

Even the University of Chicago, whose Provost famously issued a statement against restrictive campus speech codes in 2016, has a Bias Report Team.

“It’s telling that on the one hand what is now called the Chicago Statement was written by University of Chicago faculty, while on the other hand the administration has set up a Bias Response Team.  It illustrates a fundamental disconnect between faculty and administration,” says Carleton College professor Jeffrey Snyder, who co-wrote an article on BRTs only a year ago.  “It seems like a paradox, but it reflects a broader divide between faculty and administrators.”  Faculty can also be the subject of bias complaints, including if the content of the lectures is thought to “trigger” students by discussing sensitive topics like rape, race, or a growing list of subjects.  Snyder says he’s not had any personal experience with bias complaints, but he worries about how the institution of bias reporting will stifle research and teaching in the social sciences, including in his work on the history of race and desegregation in education.

When Snyder surveyed the existing BRTs only a year ago he found only 100. This year the FIRE report finds over twice as many.  The FIRE report author, Adam Steinbaugh

Bias and free speech on campus have been in the news this month.  Off-campus rioters used the occasion of a peaceful protest by students of conservative Milo Yiannapolous at U.C. Berkeley last week to set fire to university property.  A group of students and faculty at NYU protested another conservative speaker, Gavin McGinness, the next day.

Snyder points out that though conservative and libertarian groups feature heavily in reports on campus censorship, campus speech codes and institutions like Bias Report Teams can and are being used by almost anyone, including white students who claim they are offended by Black Lives Matter style protests, by conservative students claiming they are offended by progressive groups claiming then candidate Donald Trump was racist, and even by progressive and minority students squabbling among themselves.  He points to a 2015 incident when a group of Asian students at Brandeis University had an installation on campus attempting to raise awareness about smaller, unintended slights referred to as “micro-aggressions” – things like being questioned about “where did your family come from?” or “what was your first language?” – only to have it shut down by other students claiming that the installation itself was a micro aggression.

Critics say they function to censor free speech and shut down discussion, as when one faculty was reported for saying  he didn’t think a male author being discussed could imagine what it was like to be a woman.  Defenders say students, especially minority students, cannot learn in an environment where they do not feel comfortable and respected, and that discrimination and bias prevent them from being able to focus on their studies.


In a survey of almost 500 schools, 232 had Bias Response Teams.  According to FIRE, only half of those surveyed said they believed there was a tension between free speech and combatting bias.  Almost half involved law enforcement officials in their bias reports.

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