STUDY: Free speech, inclusivity are 'conflicting interests'

A new study reveals that bias response team administrators struggle to do their jobs while still respecting students’ First Amendment rights.

University of North Carolina-Charlotte professor Ryan Miller, conducted interviews with 21 bias response team administrators, finding that many of them suffer difficulty “balancing free speech and the creation of an inclusive campus.”

While Miller notes that many of the subjects expressed a desire to uphold the First Amendment rights of students, the “need to balance protecting free speech with creating an inclusive campus environment” presents them with “conflicting interests.”

[RELATED: UMN Bias Response Team unable to define ‘bias’ or ‘response’]

“I think we always are trying to strike an equitable balance between acknowledging a student’s, or offending party’s, First Amendment right of free speech, free assembly,” asserted April, one of the administrators interviewed for the study.

Jennifer, a diversity administrator at another college, voiced similar statements.

“I definitely believe in freedom of speech, but also I want to make sure that we are a safe and supportive community,” she told Miller. “I think that we can do both of those things. Hopefully, people recognize that they’re not trying to be harmful or hurtful and want to be better in the future.”

[RELATED: Bias Response Team investigated profs for discussing conflicting opinions]

While many administrators worried about infringing upon the First Amendment, they also expressed a strong desire to root out any instances of “hate speech” or “bias” that might occur on their campus.

An administrator named Kelly, for example, suggested that when the the expression of individual rights is “reckless and irresponsible…that’s when a bias response team can be most effective.”

Jennifer also expressed concern about marginalized students who might be “triggered” by hate speech or hateful groups on campus, noting that while she can’t have hateful groups removed, she can be “proactive” about providing support “to the students that are triggered when they see these folks.”

Lisa, a senior diversity administrator at a public college, reported frustration at being unable to respond to certain incidents because the school's lawyers had determined that they constituted protected speech, complaining that "our hands were tied because of the freedom of speech."

Unsurprisingly, administrators at private universities reported having greater leeway in dealing with bias incidents than their public university peers.

“If it negatively impacts the community and the way that we function, and [the college] is private, so we’re private property. We have a little bit of flexibility with some things around what we allow for you to put up in your residence hall,” explained Patricia, a diversity administrator at a private college. “Does what you’re doing create a hostile environment? We can be a little bit more aggressive about that kind of stuff.”

[RELATED: REPORT: Bias response teams oversaw nearly 3M students in 2016]

Since many administrators are unable to enact “formal punishment through disciplinary proceedings,” Miller found that many of them instead try to create “teachable moments” to educate students on the “impact of the use of free speech on the victims of the incident, even if negative impact was unintended.”

Even if bias response teams are unable to punish the offending students, Miller contends that they have “created a safer, more welcoming campus community.”

Campus Reform reached out to Miller, but he declined to speak with Campus Reform.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen