UMich caves after DOJ calls speech policies 'unconstitutional'

After repeatedly insisting that a First Amendment lawsuit endorsed by the federal government was based on “mistaken premises,” the University of Michigan has revised its speech policies.

As Campus Reform originally reported, the free speech advocacy group Speech First filed a lawsuit against UM in May alleging that the university’s policies on harassment, bullying, and bias were “highly subjective” and unconstitutionally broad, to the point that they could cause students to censor themselves for fear of violating the obscure policies.

The lawsuit also objects to a provision in the school’s disciplinary code that imposes harsher penalties for “unwanted negative attention” that administrators deem to be motivated by “bias,” but UM countered with a court filing declaring that the lawsuit “mischaracterized” its actual policies.

[RELATED: UMich claims free speech lawsuit has ‘mistaken premises’]

The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently weighed in with a statement of interest agreeing with Speech First’s interpretation of the case, declaring that UM’s code of conduct is “unconstitutional” and that its bias response policy “chills protected speech” on campus.

UM spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald disputed the DOJ’s assessment shortly after it was announced, telling Michigan Radio that the government’s attorneys likewise misinterpreted the school’s policies.

“Contrary to the department’s statement, the university’s Bias Response Team does not ‘have the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction,’” Fitzgerald asserted. “It provides support to students on a voluntary basis; it does not investigate claims of bias or discipline students in any way.”

[RELATED: DOJ blasts University of Michigan’s controversial speech code]

Later that day, however, Fitzgerald posted an announcement on the school’s news website revealing that UM had “revised the statutory language to narrow the potential scope of what is prohibited, and to add additional safeguards for free speech.”

In contrast to UM’s previous statements on the matter, the post claimed that “the university already was reviewing its websites and policies to ensure they were consistent with First Amendment principles” before the lawsuit was even filed, and that the process was merely “accelerated” in response to the legal challenge.

“The revised definitions more precisely and accurately reflect the commitment to freedom of expression that has always been expressed in the statement itself,” Vice President for Student Life Royster Harper said in an email quoted in the post.

UPDATE: Fitzgerald reiterated in a statement to Campus Reform that UM had been reviewing the policy changes “for weeks,” adding that they were formally approved prior to the DOJ’s statement of interest.

”It’s heartening to see that the DOJ believes U-M is such an efficient operation that we can update policy, change definitions, and implement a communications plan in a matter of a couple hours,” he remarked. “In fact, these changes have been under review for weeks and the changes to our website, including the new definitions, were approved last week. Implementation of those changes on our website was well under way Monday morning when we learned of the DOJ statement of interest.”

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