Legal group scores win in fight against bias reporting systems

The University of Maine recently revised its bias reporting system following a demand letter from Southeastern Legal Foundation.

Campus Reform reported in October that SLF sent letters to the University of Maine and 11 other schools 'demanding that they change ‘unconstitutional’ policies that impede students’ freedom of speech.'

The University of Maine (UMaine) recently revised its bias reporting system following a demand letter from Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF).

In a press release, SLF, a “legal organization dedicated to defending liberty,” called the revision “a victory for college students everywhere.”

Campus Reform reported in October that SLF sent letters to UMaine and 11 other universities “demanding that they change ‘unconstitutional’ policies that impede students’ freedom of speech.” 

UMaine is one of eight universities identified by SLF for its bias reporting form, which asked “any member of the University of Maine community” to “report any possible bias-related incidents or hate crimes.” 

The Bias Reporting Team (BRT) website now links to the university’s Free Speech Policy and clarifies that constitutionally protected speech is “not subject to the university disciplinary processes or a formal investigation.”

[RELATED: Bowling Green State University receives legal directive to disband its bias reporting system]

SLF’s Oct. 3 letter to Robert Dana, the university’s Vice President for Student Life and Inclusive Excellence, made additional demands to “remove the bias reporting system and bias response team altogether” and inform students that any meeting resulting from a report is optional.

Heather Hogan, the BRT co-chair and deputy Title IX coordinator, told Campus Reform that “there are no other planned changes to the Bias Response Team at this time.” 

According to the SLF press release, “bias reporting systems infringe on students’ freedom of speech because they give students the impression that they could be punished for engaging in protected speech.”

“As a result, students self-censor rather than risk being reported to and disciplined by a campus bias response team for offending their peers,” SLF wrote.

A 2022 report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) shows that conservative students are more likely to self-censor than liberal students. 

The survey administered at over 200 colleges and universities reported that 42 percent of conservative students “often felt that they cannot express their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond” compared to 14 percent of liberal students.

Over one-third of conservative students “reported feeling a lot of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics” while 13 percent of liberal students felt the same way.  

Cece O’Leary, an attorney for SLF, spoke to Campus Reform about self-censorship.

“In our experience, conservative and libertarian students are more willing to engage in speech activities than other groups. They like to challenge ideas and to have their own ideas challenged,” O’Leary said.

“But unfortunately, in this day and age, their classmates see that as controversial and even offensive. Rather than engage conservatives and libertarians in debate, they report them to the campus thought police.”

[RELATED: 1A lawyers brief students on free speech rights ahead of the fall semester]

Wyatt Ford, a recent UMaine graduate, spoke to Campus Reform about the bias reporting system. “[F]rom talking to right-of-center students on campus, many have been quite worried that the administration would use it against them if they did something that they deemed ‘out of line,’” Ford said.

“Things like hosting controversial guest speakers, running a club table involving a hot-button issue, or even mentioning something in a passing conversation that someone might overhear and not agree with have all been things mentioned to me as something that might set the university administration off.”

As a student, Ford and another member of the UMaine Young Americans for Liberty chapter emailed the BRT with the same demands as SLF’s letter. Ford said that they didn’t receive a response.

The BRT website says that the bias reporting system “does not replace any of the current procedures and protocols in place to resolve alleged violations of policy regarding student conduct, discrimination, sexual misconduct, or violations of law.”

O’Leary said that reports from such systems have included everything from language students used while “playing a card game in the privacy of their dorm room” to textbooks suggesting “that there are only two genders.”

“Some campuses maintain a bias reporting system purely as a way of offering support to students who feel offended,” O’Leary said.

“Like at UMaine, universities try to suggest that bias response teams have the authority to punish students for engaging in so-called bias, but ultimately, that is not the case. They only have the authority to listen to students who feel offended and offer those students emotional support.”

The 11-member BRT at UMaine includes staff from the Division of Student Life and Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion website shows trainings such as “Safe Zone 101,” in which participants “learn definitions, understand pronouns, and find ways to be an effective and supportive all[y].” 

There is also a training on “Microaggressions, Implicit Bias and the Teachable Moment.”

“There [are] many folx right here in our community who are harmed by words, actions and situations on a daily basis,” the training description reads. “There are ways that we can mitigate those harms by knowing how to prevent, interrupt and respond to microaggressions and biases.”

Campus Reform contacted the University of Maine, the Bias Response Team, and UMaine College Republicans for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.