Last month, FIRE publicly called on the University of Oregon (UO) to release records relating to its controversial “Bias Response Team” (BRT) protocol. The BRT had intervened with students and faculty in response to student complaints about allegedly offensive speech and, in the case of a student newspaper, inadequate coverage of particular issues. In response to a public records request from FIRE, UO declined to issue a fee waiver, arguing that sharing such records would not benefit the public. Now, a UO professor is publicly calling on his institution to provide greater transparency with regards to the BRT and to adopt stronger policies relating to freedom of speech.
I have engaged with my journalism and law colleagues on the BRT in recent weeks. Few have been eager to step forward and express their thoughts on the BRT. And I have been advised to be more “politically astute” in taking issue with the BRT and its impact on the UO faculty, staff and students.
A discerning UO colleague, who has endured a real-life chilling experience with the BRT, has told me: “Now that we have become a laughingstock to the entire nation due to our relationship with the BRT, nothing could be more important than discussing this issue with the entire faculty and staff.”
Those of us who understand that free speech versus cultural sensitivity is not a zero-sum game should scrutinize the BRT in an uninhibited, robust and wide-open way.
FIRE agrees. And in order to inform a discussion amongst faculty, staff, and students, UO should release the documents relating to the BRT’s activities. Although UO provides summaries of reported incidents and the BRT’s responses to those reports, the summaries are vague and do not illuminate what message UO conveyed to the parties involved.
In short, providing records relating to some—if not all—of the incidents addressed by the BRT would greatly benefit public understanding of how UO addresses student concerns about allegedly offensive speech, and whether those efforts raise First Amendment concerns. UO, unfortunately, has brusquely argued that doing so would not be in the public interest—a determination likely made so that those wishing to review these public records will be forced to pay substantial, if not prohibitive, fees to do so.
After widespread media interest and criticism—aided now by a UO professor publicly calling for greater debate about the BRT’s efforts—the public is clearly interested in how the BRT conducts itself. As long as UO does not provide the records we have requested, the public can only speculate about what kind of impact the BRT may be having on the UO community.