Student Op-Ed Confronts “Bias-Incident Protocol” at Claremont Consortium

By on November 16, 2009

The Claremont Consortium in California requires that an e-mail be sent to students at all five colleges in the Consortium whenever there is a report of a "bias-related incident." A bias related incident is defined by Pomona College (the definition varies slightly between the colleges) as follows:

Bias-related incidents are expressions of hostility against another individual (or group) because of the other person’s (or group’s) race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of these characteristics. Depending on the circumstances, a bias-related incident may not be a crime, and may be protected speech. The conduct underlying some bias-related incidents may violate the College’s policies, including provisions of the Student Code and the Harassment and Discrimination Policy.

Torch readers will remember that FIRE has reported on the misguided applications of this absurd policy a number of times throughout the past several years. You may remember such episodes as the phrase "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" appearing on a Harvey Mudd residence hall whiteboard, prompting a campus-wide email. Or the "white party" incident, when Scripps College Dean of Students Debra Wood reacted adversely to an innocuous flyer, classifying it as racist and sexist. This overreaction earned Wood a nomination for "Idiot of the Year" from The Washington Post‘s "Offbeat" column. Then there was the "Wild Wild West" party advertisement at Harvey Mudd, where a "bias-related" flyer featured with a picture of Jesus Christ holding a beer and a cigarette, with the caption, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the West and have come to party." Unfortunately, there have been plenty of other equally trivial "bias-related incidents" that have been deemed worthy of campus-wide e-mails by Consortium administrators.

Now it looks like the Claremont schools are at it again. Student Brendan Rowan has an excellent op-ed in The Student Life, the student paper at Pomona College, on another incident and on the dubious efficacy of the whole protocol. He writes:

A recent event, which involved "inappropriately tagged posted photos found on KGI students’ Facebook pages," may serve as a good example.  As per standard operating procedure, the e-mail ends with an invitation to "any student in need of support concerning this incident" to contact the appropriate organization (AAMP, OBSA, etc.), and an invitation to any student who "perceives a racist or sexist incident on campus" to report it to the appropriate authorities as soon as possible. First and foremost, we might ask ourselves whether it is the college’s responsibility (or right, for that matter) to monitor the goings-on of a web site such as Facebook.

A good question. What are the Claremont colleges doing responding to complaints about "inappropriately tagged posted photos" on the Facebook accounts of their adult students?

Worse yet, Rowan discusses the deleterious effect such bias-related protocol has on students’ sense of liberty:

As students of the 5Cs, we have become uncomfortably accustomed to the "bias-related incident" e-mails that we receive on, it seems, a far too frequent basis. I think (don’t stop reading) that this whole business is silly at its best and irresponsible at its worst. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not in favor of any kind of racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive remarks, but I think that it would behoove the administrations and related parties (i.e. everybody) at all the 5Cs to rethink their policy on bias-related incidents and, on a broader scale, identity politics at large.

Students have become accustomed to Claremont Consortium administrators looking over their shoulders and scolding them in front of the class, so to speak, every time someone says something that offends another student. This is college, not grade school. Offense is something adults should be able to handle amongst themselves. The Claremont schools are bound not only by their own promises of free expression to their students, but also by California law binding private non-sectarian institutions to the free speech protections of the California Constitution and the First Amendment. Rowan writes:

Remember that everyone, even chauvinists, have the right to free speech. If a student is offended by some remarks or incidents, then they should contact their local law enforcement agency, or in this case the Facebook administrators. If getting the law involved seems like an overreaction, then maybe the involved parties should reconsider how deeply they have been offended.

Offended? Welcome to college. It’s supposed to be about free inquiry and free expression. The best way to respond to speech you find offensive is with more speech. As we like to say: If you’ve spent four years in college and haven’t been offended, you should ask for a refund. 

Schools: Claremont University Consortium Cases: Claremont University Consortium: Free Speech Silenced by Administrators