University shuts down bias reporting system after complaint

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rebuked Longwood and several other universities for having such systems in place in a February survey of "Bias Response Teams."

Longwood is currently devising a new protocol at the behest of Virginia Assistant Attorney General Cameron O'Brion, and hopes to have it in place by spring 2018.

Repeated concerns over the constitutionality of Longwood University's bias incident reporting system has resulted in its temporary shut down while the school revises procedures.

Longwood University has temporarily shut down its bias incident reporting system, promising to revise the protocol to assuage concerns that it restricted free speech.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Longwood was one of many universities with a bias reporting system that “call[s] upon students to report fellow students and faculty for protected speech, including political speech,” but stood out for its particularly broad definition of “bias incident,” which raised red flags at FIRE.

In February 2017, FIRE published its nationwide survey of Bias Response Teams, which criticized Longwood and many other universities for promoting such systems.

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In response, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Longwood spokesman Matthew McWilliams characterized the survey as “extremely misleading,” adding that the school “[does] not under any circumstances punish students simply for their beliefs or opinions.”

Notably, Longwood itself acknowledges that “the courts have not upheld campus judicial codes that include specific prohibitions related to bias and hate because they have been overly broad in their definitions,” explaining that the school therefore “use[s] existing policies and train[s] board members to identify bias-related behavior and include appropriate education sanctions when a student is found responsible.”

If the behavior violates the Student Code of Conduct, Longwood imposes judicial charges in response to a bias report, whereas actions that rise to the level of hate crimes are reported to state and/or federal authorities.

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According to The Rotunda, however, Longwood decided to revamp its bias reporting system after a student registered free speech concerns at the end of the spring 2017 semester, and Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Tim Pierson is now reviewing the first draft of a new policy.

Director of Citizen Leadership and Social Justice Education Jonathan Page conceded that some of the definitions the school had used were problematic, telling the Rotunda that Virginia Assistant Attorney General Cameron O'Brion advised the university to remove the former protocol and provided recommendations for revision in response to the student’s complaint.

"A lot [of O’Brion’s recommendations] were based in how we were not only defining bias and hate crimes, they really didn't fall in line with how the FBI defined hate crimes, that a lot of the things we defined as bias incidents were really freedom of speech issues," Page explained. "Some of the language that we modeled came from some private institutions and so as a public institution we can't have the same stance that privates do."

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The university hopes to have the new bias incident reporting system in place by spring 2018, but declined to discuss specific details until a final version of the new protocol has been approved.

Campus Reform reached out the the university for comment and will update this article if and when a response is received.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @KylePerisic