University eliminates bias reporting system after receiving legal demand letter

Southern Utah University removed bias incidents from its reporting system after a demand letter warned of bias reporting systems’ ‘chilling effect’ on speech.

The letter called the bias reporting system ‘vague’ and said that it risked causing students to self-censor out of fear of punishment.

Southern Utah University (SUU) recently removed bias incidents from its reporting system after receiving a demand letter from the Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF). 

SLF, “a national, nonprofit legal organization dedicated to defending liberty,” said in a press release “that the anti-bias code infringed on students’ freedom of speech by giving the Dean of Students broad authority to investigate and punish students accused of offending their peers.” 

demand letter that SLF sent the Vice President for Student Affairs explained the “chilling effect” that bias reporting systems have on speech. Before SUU updated its reporting website, the website included a section for those who “have witnessed or experienced a bias incident.” 

SUU defined bias as an incident that “may or may not rise to the level of criminal activity or illegal or prohibited discrimination, but its effect is to discriminate, demean, embarrass, assign stereotype, harass, or exclude individuals because of their membership in a classification.” The section on bias incidents included a form for anonymous reports, and students could also report to the Dean of Students. 

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In its letter, SLF warned that SUU’s bias reporting system was vague in that it provided no guidelines for following up on reports, and it risked causing students to self-censor out of fear of punishment. 

SLF told Campus Reform that university administrators’ follow-up on bias reports varies. “Some urge or even require students to issue an apology. Some request a meeting between the students and the offended party to ‘educate’ the students about what caused offense,” Cece O’Leary, an attorney with SLF, said. 

“Some even discipline students by taking away student organization status or other privileges. But the purpose is always the same: to deter students who have allegedly caused offense from ever sharing their views again.”

SLF’s letter explained the chilling effect of reporting bias incidents to the Dean of Students. “Communication from the Dean of Students regarding a bias incident will naturally take on a weighty tone,” the letter reads. “Nowhere does the University explain that protected speech will not be subjected to lengthy investigations or punishment.” 

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Campus Reform has reported on SLF’s challenges to other bias reporting systems. 

In October, SLF sent letters to SUU and 11 other universities “demanding that they change ‘unconstitutional’ policies that impede students’ freedom of speech.” At the time, eight of these universities had bias reporting systems in place. 

In response to SLF’s demand letter, the University of Maine (UMaine) clarified its bias reporting system. UMaine’s updated website includes a link to campus speech policies and says that students will not be investigated or punished for engaging in protected speech according to a December report from Campus Reform

“It is time colleges start directing their resources to more useful things, like academics and extracurriculars,” O’Leary said in SLF’s press release. 

Campus Reform contacted Southern Utah University for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.