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Records reveal North Dakota State University’s responses to reports of ‘bias’

  • Christian student groups were often reported to administrators, as were comments by a professor that a student perceived to be anti-Christian.
  • Some university records demonstrated a willingness to defend First Amendment principles, yet others indicate that administrators were willing to intervene and investigate clearly protected political and religious speech.
  • University gave FIRE “the records” we requested, but we had proof that years’ worth of records hadn’t been turned over — until we asked a second time.

Following our survey of “bias response teams” — systems created to encourage students to report offensive, yet protected, speech to university administrators — some media outlets have started using public records laws to ask what gets reported to campus officials, and how they respond. Recently, Valley News Live, the NBC affiliate out of Fargo, North Dakota, did exactly that at North Dakota State University.

The university’s “Bias Report Form” asks students to report incidents of “bias.” What that means isn’t described by the form, but we can surmise that it’s something less than acts of legally actionable discrimination or harassment, as a separate NDSU reporting system exists for such reports.

With no apparent definition of what constitutes “bias,” the system appears to be an open-ended invitation to report anything that offends. Unsurprisingly, just as our report found, the records Valley News Live turned up revealed reports of “bias” that spanned the ideological spectrum:

We wanted to find out what types of incidents were being reported here at NDSU. Some of these from the last three years will probably surprise you.

There’s a professor who allegedly called a student who was a veteran a ‘war monger’. A group was protesting abortion on campus and equated the practice to Nazi genocide. Also reported were dorm building whiteboard drawings with homosexual and racial slurs, a bookstore employee wore a Halloween costume that someone found insensitive, the official NDSU song was reported for lyrics referring to the “red man”, and a residence life Super Bowl poster was reported for saying people should show up “ ‘cause you’re American”.

Valley News Live found that in many incidents involving professors, faculty or campus employees, the investigating was often done by the department chair or direct supervisor. In many situations, allegations brought by students were simply found to have no merit and the case was dropped, especially if it was reported anonymously. That’s despite someone on campus finding it important enough to report it to the administration. And out of those 14,000 students, Valley News Live obtained hundreds of pages detailing bias, hate speech, bigotry and discrimination that some person felt important enough to report.

This NBC affiliate apparently had an easier time getting these records than we did — and we still don’t have all of them.

When we first asked the university for records of its bias reporting statistics since 2005 and records of reported incidents since 2009, we received an email purporting to attach “the records responsive to your request.” The oldest of those records dated to March of 2016, but we knew that couldn’t be accurate. We had written about the university’s bias reporting system back in 2009 and still had a copy of statistics from 2008 — once published on the university’s website and since deleted — showing that “31 reports … were collected during the 2007–2008 school year[.]”

So what happened to those records, and why weren’t they provided to us? We asked the university about this discrepancy. After more than a month passed without a response to our inquiry, we sent a second public records request.

Why? North Dakota, like many states, has laws governing the retention of documents held by the government, and destroying documents often requires the government to create new records describing what they did with the records they destroyed. So if the university truly had no older records to share with us, there would be documents showing what happened, or at least documents showing what they did to try to find the records we requested. So our second request asked the university to account for what happened to the records we knew existed at some point in time, but weren’t shared.

Lo and behold, ten days after we made our second request — and 51 days after the university gave us “the records” — the university handed over hundreds of pages of older records responsive to the first request, explaining that “[s]ome of the material was in the process of being redacted when your [second] request [was received.]”

And what do they show? As we’ve seen with bias response teams across the nation, speech across the ideological spectrum is being reported to administrators and scrutinized for policy violations:

  • Administrators intervened with the student moderator of an “Overheard at NDSU” Facebook page, following a report that the student was “not doing a very good job of filtering out comments that are blatantly sexist, racist, and homophobic.” An administrator “discussed the difference between free speech and hate speech” with the student and relayed the reporter’s concern that the moderator was also a member of the student government. The administrator urged that NDSU was “not trying to tell [the student] what to do with his website due to free speech rights” and was simply encouraging the student to be mindful of others’ feelings. The student instead stepped down as a moderator of the page.
  • Multiple people reported a student group for co-sponsoring displays with a pro-life group on campus. Many of the reports were spurred by an email an administrator sent alerting the campus to the presence and location of the displays and noting that “the University is a community of inquiry and persuasion.” Despite the university already being aware of the event, multiple people complained that the name of the group, “Genocide Awareness Project,” compared abortion to genocide. One report noted that “[g]roups expressing their opinion is alright, but allowing an obviously religiously-affiliated group to express such a hateful, insensitive message on a state-funded campus property should not happen in the future.” One administrator in receipt of a bias incident report asked colleagues: “[I]s there specific language you have used to explain first amendment (sic); freedom of speech; and/or time, place, manner in situations such as this?”
  • A staff member reported that they heard, from another staff member, that a student had mentioned a professor asking whether there were any members of the National Guard in her class. When none raised their hands, the professor reportedly said, “Good, then we won’t have to worry about any of that crap.” The professor was reported to have later said, outside of class, that a student was a “war monger.” When the university intervened, the professor clarified that she asks if students are in the National Guard in order to offer to work with them on absences necessitated by their enlistment. The student, suffering from an undisclosed illness, later reported that the “war monger” comment may have been a flashback, and not based in reality. An unidentified university employee remarked that it was “unfortunate that a thoughtful and caring instructor was falsely accused of being insensitive” and hoped that “the student who made this false allegation is receiving services and assistance that will make it less likely for him or her to make a similarly unjust allegation about an instructor in the future.”
  • A Christian student group, bisonCatholic, was reported for a poster announcing an event titled “Chicks, Liquor & Drugs: God's Calling Me - Why Should I Answer?” The reporting student wanted the university to “[r]equire that the poster be taken down” because it was “offensive towards women” in that it “put women on the same level of alcohol or drugs[.]” It’s unclear how the university responded, but university records — the existence of which suggests that the university indeed contacted the students about the complaint — describe the students apologizing.
  • Someone reported posters on campus reading “Atheists are Wrong. Creation’s Case for God,” complaining that this was “blatantly offensive and intolerent (sic) of other people’s religious, etc. beliefs” and that the “event should not be allowed to be advertised on campus or held on campus.” As a result, the university involved the Student Affairs department and the university’s attorney, which scrutinized the posters to see whether they violated any institutional policies. They didn’t. One administrator noted that “We’re in the business of providing access to differing ideas and viewpoints. The language of the poster is provocative, but I do not see that its (sic) offensive.”
  • One reporter was angry after seeing posters advertising “an entire department for gay people” and demanded that the university “eliminate” the department or replace it with “a department for natural and correct beliefs[.]”
  • An art history professor was reported for allegedly disparaging Christianity in class. According to the report, the professor asked the class who was Christian; when students raised their hands, the professor said, “tsk, tsk, tsk.” The reporting student complained that “[r]eligion isn’t any part of the curriculum, lecture or discussion.” When the university intervened, the professor denied disparaging Christianity and pointed out that art history necessarily involves discussion of faith and religious tradition.

Encouragingly, some responses by the university indicated that the institution is willing to defend free speech on campus, or is at least cognizant that they’re monitoring protected speech. Some incidents, however, are troubling, indicating that administrators intervened following reports of clearly protected speech. And, if mechanisms already exist to report unlawful conduct like harassment and discrimination, inviting reports of subjective “bias” is likely to mean that officials are scrutinizing speech that is almost certainly protected by the First Amendment.

Those officials should be prepared then, at the very least, to be able to articulate basic information about the First Amendment.

But this may not be the full story. When the university finally produced the lion’s share of the records to us, we were told that there is “additional material that is responsive that has been located and is in the process of being redacted.  We will get that material to you as soon as the redaction process is complete.”

Six months later, we’re still waiting.

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