‘Michigan Daily’ Columnist Probes ‘Bias Incidents’ at UM

November 17, 2010

Michigan Daily columnist Noel Gordon has an interesting observation about the University of Michigan’s South Quad dormitory in a recent column. "[H]anging above the East Side Community Center is a huge, yellow banner," Gordon writes. "Instead of welcoming you to the building, the banner lets you know just how many days it has been since someone last reported a bias incident." That’s a new one to me, but it’s another indicator of both the vigilance with which universities today present themselves as beacons of tolerance and the increasing fearfulness among administrators of such "bias incidents." Once again, administrators are putting hurt feelings on the same level as physical injuries, as though the dorm is some kind of construction site.

Gordon makes interesting points about the nature of bias incidents on campus, and I encourage readers to read his column. Gordon observes that "many students on campus have a rather vague idea of what actually constitutes a bias incident," and FIRE’s experience in this arena shows that "bias incident" policies also tend to suffer from haphazard and even ludicrous enforcement. Take, for instance, some of the examples from my recent blog about bias incidents at the University of Georgia, where crude statements such as "WELCOME TO BOOBS 3RD FLOOR" were reported to UGA’s police department (the police actually came and filled out a police report regarding this silly, yet harmless, expression).

Then there are the Claremont Colleges in California, where writing "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" and advertising a "white party," among other things, were written up. Certainly these overreactions contribute to an exceedingly vague understanding of bias incidents by students, abetted by vague (and often unconstitutional) bias reporting policies and made still worse by crusading administrators who call in the police at the smallest nudge.

Gordon also discusses hypothetical scenarios of students drawing penises on the whiteboards on dorm room doors. FIRE has seen enough evidence of such circumstances to eliminate the need for hypothesis. One of the more amusing ones we’ve come across was at Skidmore College in New York, where a drawing of a penis with the message "the cockness monster was here" was found on a whiteboard and written up as a bias incident.

Comments written on whiteboards almost always constitute protected speech, particularly when they are on a public campus like the University of Michigan and on whiteboards where students are supposed to write on each other’s doors. The First Amendment, thankfully, does not treat speech motivated by bias or hate differently than it treats other speechotherwise the vague notion of "hate" would be used to crack down on all manner of speech that someone simply doesn’t like. Instead, as FIRE often says, "bad" speech should be countered with "better" speech, not censorship or punishment.

For this reason I propose a different banner: "Number of Days Since UM Investigated Someone’s Constitutionally Protected Expression." Let’s encourage more speech on campus instead of sending the "bad" speech underground.

Indeed, ideas like the UM South Quad banner actually can have negative long-term effects, including the numbing of the student body to genuine problems on campus. FIRE has seen evidence of this creeping apathy. In the Pomona College newspaper The Student Life, columnist Brendan Rowan wrote that "[a]s 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." Also in The Student Life, student Jack Knauer wrote that the Claremont Colleges’ bias reporting policy "became a joke for the most part." It’s a shame if these e-mails cause students to turn themselves off to the "more speech" approach either because the administrators keep showing that they are handling such things themselves, or because students are tired of having the no-bias/no-offense ethic jammed down their throats. Colleges have themselves to blame for teaching students that they are too weak to live with liberty and the risk of hurt feelings.

Here is where Gordon has a point worth consideration at UM: "The way to combat these attacks isn’t with violence, retribution or further intolerance. If anything, we should educate ourselves and others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance." Hopefully Gordon does not really mean that students should widen their perception of what makes for a bias incident and report more of them as a result. FIRE’s experience has shown that this is about the last thing students need. An endless barrage of incident reports about penises drawn on whiteboards becomes about as socially constructive as, well, penises drawn on whiteboards. Students do not need to report one another to the authorities in order to encourage mutual respect.

Fighting offense through engagement and discussion is just what FIRE advocates for students who feel offended. It’s too bad that so many administrators don’t trust their students’ ability to have these conversations.

Schools:  University of Michigan – Ann Arbor