‘A Literal Speech Police’: Advocacy Group Asks Supreme Court To Weigh In On Student Snitching Systems

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A free speech advocacy group asked the Supreme Court Tuesday to consider whether “Bias Response Teams” at hundreds of universities nationwide chill students’ speech.

Speech First has filed five lawsuits against major universities for their bias response teams, which enables students to report incidents of bias for teams of administrators to then investigate. Three federal appeals courts — the Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits — have found such programs raise First Amendment concerns, while two courts — the Fourth and Seventh Circuits — determined that they do not chill student speech, the organization told the Supreme Court in their petition filed Tuesday.

“Hundreds of universities have a ‘bias-response team’—an official entity that solicits reports of bias, tracks them, investigates them, asks to meet with the perpetrators, and threatens to refer students for formal discipline,” the petition explains. “Universities formally define ‘bias’ to cover wide swaths of protected speech. Bias-response teams are staffed by administrators, disciplinarians, and even police officers—a literal speech police.”(RELATED: ‘Surveillance State’: Federal Judge Slams Decision To Uphold University’s Bias Reporting Policy In Dissent)

These teams deter speech “by threatening students with adverse consequences” instead of outright banning it, creating an environment “arguably even ‘more stifling’ than traditional speech codes,” Speech First argues.

“As explained in our petition, Speech First hopes the Supreme Court will take this case to resolve the circuit split over bias response teams and to address the chilling effect that they inflict on college students,” Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold Virginia Tech’s bias-related incidents policy in May. Circuit Court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a Reagan appointee, compared the policy to a “Ministry of Truth” in his dissent.

“How did it ever come to this—that such a fine and distinguished university would institute a policy with such incipient inquisitional overtones, one that turns its campus into a surveillance state?” Wilkinson wrote. “The First Amendment guarantees to everyone not just passive access to but active participation in the marketplace of ideas. Today, the majority breaks that promise to a segment of society who needs it most—college students.”

Senior Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Clinton appointee, wrote in the majority opinion for the Virginia Tech case that the policy falls short of mandating compliance and can only  “extend an invitation for a voluntary conversation.”

More than 450 universities had bias-reporting systems as of 2022, according to Speech First’s petition.

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