Tornadoes, and Bomb Scares, and Bias! Oh, My!

January 7, 2011

The University of South Carolina has a speech code classifying any "negative or unwanted attention" on the basis of "race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin or other differences" as a "critical incident" equivalent to a suicide attempt, sexual assault, student death, fire, bomb threat, or tornado.

The Staff Manual for university housing employees has a chapter instructing RAs and other residence hall staff on how to respond to so-called critical incidents. In the case of "bias-related incidents," staff are instructed to immediately report the incident to the police, regardless of whether it is a physical attack or simply "negative or unwanted attention" such as a verbal or written comment. Staff must ask witnesses to remain on the scene and must refrain from erasing any evidence, such as inappropriate comments, until police have cleared them to do so. "After the immediate response," the protocol continues, "you should notify your supervisor." Staff must also "document any bias-related incidents" and submit a report to their director in the morning.

The only other things (in addition to "bias-related incidents") that the University of South Carolina considers to be "critical incidents" are as follows: medical emergencies; suicide attempts; sexual assaults; domestic violence; student death; violent crimes; facility emergencies such as fire or bomb threats; and weather emergencies such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

While bias-related physical attacks or threats could constitute legitimate emergencies, the definition of a "bias-related incident" is so broad that it unquestionably encompasses a large amount of constitutionally protected expression. While it is tempting just to see a protocol like this as ridiculous, equating offensive but protected expression with far more serious acts of threats and harassmentnot to mention sexual assaults and suicidestrivializes the more serious events and makes it more difficult for students to take them seriously. If the police are questioning witnesses in your dorm anytime someone writes "dick" or "boobs" on someone else’s whiteboard (as happens at the University of Georgia, for example), how seriously are you going to take your administration when they talk about problems with bias on campus?

The "critical incidents" protocol at the University of South Carolina is just another example of administrative overreach into the personal lives of adult college students. Being an adult in a free society sometimes means dealing with "negative or unwanted attention," and in the real world you can’t pick up the phone and dial 911 every time someone hurts your feelings. Universities do their students no favors by teaching them otherwise.

Schools:  University of South Carolina Columbia