Students File Supreme Court Petition Against College ‘Speech Police’

Students have filed a petition accusing colleges of infringing on their first amendment rights via imposing speech policing on campuses.
Students File Supreme Court Petition Against College ‘Speech Police’
A woman stomps on a free speech sign at the University of California–Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 24, 2017. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Naveen Athrappully

Free speech group “Speech First” has filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether bias-response teams at universities violate the free speech rights of students.

“Hundreds of universities have a ‘bias-response team’—an official entity that solicits reports of bias, tracks them, investigates them, asks to meet with the perpetrators, and threatens to refer students for formal discipline,” the Aug. 14 petition (pdf) states. “Universities formally define ‘bias’ to cover wide swaths of protected speech. Bias-response teams are staffed by administrators, disciplinarians, and even police officers—a literal speech police.” The petition talked about the bias intervention response team (BIRT) set up at Virginia Tech.

BIRT claims that its purpose is to “eliminate” biased speech through “immediate direct or indirect responses to bias-related incidents,” the petition said while pointing out that the university’s definition of a “bias incident” is too broad.

Bias incidents are said to be expressions against a person or a group based on “age, color, disability, gender (including pregnancy), gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other basis protected by law.”

Speech First says that some of its members who currently attend Virginia Tech have views that are “unpopular” and “controversial.”

One student believes biological males cannot be female just because they identify that way. Another student believes Black Lives Matter is “destructive and fundamentally racist” and that those who cross the border should be referred to as “illegal aliens,” according to the petition.

“These students censor their speech because of the University’s bias-incidents policy … They fear that students, faculty members, or others will report them to university officials for committing a bias incident.”

Since the definition of what constitutes a bias is broad and vague, the students “know that someone will find their speech to be biased” and report such speech to BIRT, resulting in negative repercussions, it said.

“For example, they fear that the Dean will keep a dossier on them, share the allegations with others at the university, call them in for meetings or ‘interventions’, or refer the allegations to disciplinary authorities, including the Office of Student Conduct.”

The case has gone to five circuit courts, with opinions of these courts split 3-2.

“The Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits hold that bias-response teams objectively chill students’ speech; but the Fourth and Seventh Circuits hold that they don’t,” the petition said. “The question presented is: Whether bias-response teams objectively chill students’ speech.”

As circuit courts could not resolve the matter, Speech First asked the Supreme Court to grant a review of the case.

The 2023 term of the Supreme Court begins in October. It takes four justices to vote in favor of the petition to hear oral arguments regarding the case.

Free Speech Suppression on American Campuses

At Virginia Tech, students can report a bias incident through an online reporting tool, social media, or email. Complaints can be made anonymously. Reported information will include the alleged perpetrator’s name, email address, and role in a student organization.

“Bias reports often involve protected speech,” the petition said.

A person walks through the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., on December 8, 2011. (Jared Soares/Getty Images)
A person walks through the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., on December 8, 2011. (Jared Soares/Getty Images)

Some of the incidents accused of having a bias include writing “Saudi Arabia” on a whiteboard outside of a student’s dorm room, describing female students as unathletic, and telling a joke that included Caitlyn Jenner’s “deadname,” which refers to a transgender person’s birth name.

Once BIRT determines that a bias incident is valid, it will engage in an “intervention” with the student that is “educational or restorative.” And if “appropriate,” the incident may even be referred to the police department, Threat Assessment Team, or Title IX office.

The alleged suppression of speech at Virginia Tech is one of many such incidents in American educational institutions.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Virginia Tech for comment.

Speech First had filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma State University (OSU) earlier this year, accusing the university of implementing policies that “deter, suppress, and punish speech about political and social issues of the day.”

“Under these policies, students can be disciplined for ambiguously defined ‘intimidating’ speech, discussing politics in emails, commenting in class, or even, in the words of the University, for showing 'a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing,’” the group said in a Jan. 10 statement.

In July, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville agreed to settle a lawsuit by a graduate student who accused the school of discrimination when it asked her peers to report her “harmful rhetoric.”

Ms. DeJong, a Christian conservative, openly talked about her views on campus, discussing issues like critical race theory, abortion, and censorship.

Three of her fellow students reported her speech to authorities, which led to the university issuing no-contact orders against her. The students claimed that her religious and political viewpoints amounted to “harassment” and “discrimination.”

According to a “2024 College Free Speech Rankings” report published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Harvard University was ranked as the worst school in the United States for free speech. The report described Harvard’s First Amendment rights as “abysmal.”

In addition to Harvard, other universities in the bottom five of the free speech ranking were UPenn, Georgetown in Washington D.C., Fordham in New York City, and the University of South Carolina.

The top five ranked universities were Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Auburn University in Alabama, the University of New Hampshire, Florida State University, and Oregon State University.