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Despite Campus Closures, Students Still Face Speech Threats

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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With colleges and universities across the country shuttering for the next several weeks – if not the remainder of the spring semester – the traditional schooling model has been turned on its head overnight. From being forced to move out of dorms on short notice to taking classes online, students now face a set of challenges that are likely to forever change the face of higher education.

The downsides are many, of course; the social aspect of campus life is sorely missed, and the abrupt transition to online learning has been rocky for both faculty and students alike. A handful of campuses have already cancelled their spring commencement ceremonies – a major life event – and more likely to follow.

The upsides have been more haphazard: not needing to commute or get dressed up is certainly more convenient, as is the drop in commensurate expenses such as gas and meals. For those who’ve moved home to their families, the unexpected time with loved ones may feel like a blessing, although possibly more for the parents than for their offspring.

Some students – including politically active- and religious ones – might assume that this switch to a virtual learning environment means that they can now express opinions might have landed them in hot water on campus, because of the existence of overly broad speech codes and bias response teams that encourage students to report each other for perceived “biased,” “hateful,” or “harassing” speech.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case – a fact that students should bear in mind as they transition to this new digital reality.

Consider Fordham University, whose IT policies prohibit using email “to intimidate, insult, embarrass and harass others,” or Drexel University, whose policies list “[u]se of offensive language” as one of several unacceptable behaviors that would lead to penalties “from de-activation of the account (for minor first offenses) through university judicial action or referral to law enforcement authorities.” Given that “insulting” and “offensive” are highly subjective terms, administrators have broad discretionary power to pick winners and losers –power that could easily be used to cut some students slack while punishing others.

That’s not all to fear: schools’ Bias Response Teams (BRT) across the country routinely log and respond to complaints filed about comments made online – often explicitly encouraging students to report such conduct. Also known as Campus Climate Response Teams (CCRT), Bias Assessment Response Teams (BART), Bias Incident Response Teams (BIRT), and the like, their goal is one and the same – to chill student speech and expression.

Typically, these programs often have an online form that allows a complainant – who may remain anonymous if they so choose – to specify where the alleged bias incident took place, with cyberspace growing in prominence as one of the potential forums. Washington University in St. Louis offers “email, social media or other Internet contact” as a reporting option, while the University of Kentucky’s form allows “online” to be selected. Missouri State University lists “Virtual Space (Facebook, Cell Phone, etc.)” as an option, and Colgate University offers “Computer/text message” as a location.

To be sure, these options are used on a regular basis: at Emory University, their BIRT logged 5 complaints of biased language by phone/social media in 2018-19; at Cornell University, their BART’s 2019 annual report found that 21 incidents (or 17% of the yearly total) took place via phone call, text, email, or social media. At Gonzaga University, 6 of the 85 reports filed in the 2018-19 school year listed “online” as the location of the bias incident.

Although it remains to be seen whether – and if so, how – schools might call in students for disciplinary hearings during this current period of social distancing, the mere fact that schools have already claimed jurisdiction over their students’ online activities should give both students and parents pause. Regardless of when the coronavirus threat recedes, the trend of digital policing by colleges and universities is likely to continue apace – a miasma that will loom over students going forward.

Nicole Neily is president and founder of Speech First, a nationwide membership organization that defends students’ speech rights on campus.

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