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Speech First, Inc., v. Schlissel

From May 2018 to October 2019
University of Michigan (Public college or university)
Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Lawsuit
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
    University administration changes university policy as a consequence of event
  • Incident Status:
    Settled
  • No protest Occured
  • Was Speech Code incident

Summary

In May, 2018, the University of Michigan maintained a “Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.” The statement outlined various values that the University hoped to embody and described potential sanctions for students or faculty who fell short of those values. The Statement specifically stated that the University respects rights including “freedom of expression, press, religion, and assembly” and that students have “a right to their own views,” but “must take responsibility for according the same rights to others.” The Statement also listed various violations that students could commit, as well as possible sanctions for violations. As part of the policy the University adopted broad definitions of “harassing” and “bullying” that they took directly from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. “Harassing” was defined as “(1) to annoy persistently (2) to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal and physical conduct.” Bullying was defined as “(1) to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller weaker person), (2) to act like a bully toward (someone), (3) to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force, (4) to treat abusively, (5) to affect by means of force or coercion.”

Additionally, the University maintained a “Bias Response Team,” which was tasked with educating the University community about incidents of bias and providing resources for affected individuals when appropriate. The Bias Response Team was not a disciplinary body and thus had no power to sanction anyone, but rather focused on supporting students who believed they had been negatively impacted by an incident of bias.

On May 8, 2018, Speech First, Inc., a national organization that seeks to protect speech on college campuses, filed a Complaint and a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction on behalf of three anonymous students at the University of Michigan in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan.  Speech First, Inc. alleged that the University’s broad definitions of harassment and bullying as well as its maintenance of “Bias Response Teams” violated students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights. Before the case was heard, the University altered its definition of “bullying” and “harassment.” Both definitions now state that bullying or harassment “does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.”

On August 6, 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied Speech First Inc.’s Motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the evidence presented did not show that the “Bias Response Team” posed a threat, direct or implied, to students’ exercise of free speech and that as the definitions of harassment and bullying had been altered, the controversy was moot. Speech First, Inc. On August 13, 2018, Speech First Inc. filed a Notice of Appeal. In October 2019, the University of Michigan and Speech First, Inc. agreed to settle the lawsuit with no payments involved.