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Civility Pledge and Bias Reporting System at U. Michigan Shortchange Student Rights

By June 27, 2016

Last spring, students at the University of Michigan (UM) living in one of the largest residence halls on campus, South Quad, were pressured to sign a pledge in which they “agree to promote” certain values and state that they “will not stand for intolerance.”

The pledge, the brainchild of university administrators, laid out acceptable student expression and asked students to commit to promoting certain values among their peers. To encourage participation, Residential Advisors (RAs)—student-employees who live in the residence halls—were required to promote the pledge at mandatory hall meetings.

The full text of the community pledge reads:

As a member of the South Quad Community I stand for building and belonging to an inclusive and safe community. I agree to promote equality, civility, caring, responsibility, accountability, and respect. I recognize the importance of understanding and appreciating our different backgrounds, identities, and opinions. I will celebrate and express pride in our community’s diversity and I will not stand for intolerance against members of my community based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability, socio-economic status, nationality or any other social identity.

On its face this statement may seem innocuous; however, because students promise to adhere to certain values and stand against others, the language goes beyond mere aspiration.

Free speech is restricted by affirmatively committing a student to expressing certain opinions or ideas while vowing to oppose others. Such a statement leaves little room for honest debates and the expression of opposing viewpoints.

As an RA working and living in South Quad, I was required to promote and encourage others to sign this statement as part of my work. I was told it would be inappropriate to question the pledge or to raise concerns about its overbreadth with my residents or other students.

While signing the pledge was technically voluntary, ResStaff and Hall Directors—who, quite notably, hold discretionary disciplinary power over residents—encouraged students to sign. They also made themselves available to meet with students who expressed misgivings about putting their names to the statement. RAs and other members of ResStaff were also required to advertise and host events where students publicly signed the statement.

In addition to encouraging students to sign, RAs were required to help post signed pledges in common areas where they could be publicly viewed. This posting amounted to public pressure and shaming because those who had not signed could be singled out by peers, RAs, or administrators. (Back in 2011, Harvard did something similar with a “kindness pledge” before backing off.)

The language used in the pledge and the method by which the pledge was promoted sends the message to students, faculty, and staff that only certain ideas—those of “tolerance,” “civility,” and “inclusivity”—are acceptable on campus.

Promoting “civility” and “inclusivity” at the expense of free speech is nothing new at UM. The “Expect Respect” campaign, which serves as the basis for many residence education programs, has earned the university a “red light” speech code rating from FIRE. The “Inclusive Language Campaign,” another programming effort from university administrators, has been roundly criticized for encouraging self-censorship, but remains part of official Student Life messaging.

More alarming, however, is the widespread use of “Bias Incident Reporting” to reinforce the ideas outlined in my residence hall’s community pledge and the Expect Respect and Inclusive Language campaigns. The Bias Incident Reporting Web page tells students:

If you witness or experience conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity (such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age or religion) please report it to the University.

For RAs and Hall Directors, reporting these incidents is not optional. Once an incident has been reported, university staff members, including Hall Directors and ResStaff are required to intervene. Reported students are often called upon in their dorm rooms by Diversity Peer Educators (who are also university employees) to discuss the conduct or speech reported in the alleged bias incident. The reported incident becomes part of that student’s record with Housing. That record is shared with other schools and programs, including programs like study abroad, to which the student might wish to apply.

Unfortunately, similar policies surrounding student pledges and bias incident-reporting have popped up at universities and colleges across the country. FIRE has reported on several of these initiatives, including an attempt to institute a civility pledge at Harvard University and reports from the University of Northern Colorado’s “Bias Response Team.” These policies, like the ones at UM, not only chill speech on campus by imposing consequences for constitutionally protected speech, but also teach students that the correct response to speech they do not like is not to talk back, but to ask for administrators to intervene.

As an RA, I understand the need for universities, especially residence halls, to feel welcoming and inclusive. This goal can be reached, however, without reliance on overbroad pledges and reporting systems implemented by administrators. Instead, narrowly written policies that address unprotected speech, including true threats and harassment, will ensure that colleges remain a marketplace of ideas. Laws already on the books protect students from these kinds of crimes.

Administrators should also encourage students to use their own voices to discuss concerns. In short, simply talking to one another can help make colleges and universities be the type of communities they aspire to be. Indeed, the past few years provide countless examples of students successfully speaking out on campus and challenging their peers with no administrative intervention necessary. Encouraging more of those efforts will go a long way, at UM and at other institutions across the country, toward making college campuses the type of welcoming environment that all students seek.

Erin Dunne is a FIRE summer intern.

Schools: University of Michigan – Ann Arbor