From censuring students to censoring professors, officials at the University of Northern Colorado have spent the past year regulating speech on their campus in a way First Amendment advocates say should raise serious questions.
Two years ago, UNC administrators created the UNC Bias Response Team with the stated intention of responding to complaints of bias-motivated behavior.
During the 2015-16 academic year, UNC officials responded to dozens of complaints — most generated by students — regarding everything from professors’ in-class assignments to students’ strongly stated political opinions to cooking competitions that caused problems for students with eating disorders.
Documents The Tribune obtained from Heat Street, a New York-based, libertarian-leaning online publication, show a UNC process that mirrors police reports, with a reporting party, an investigative narrative and consequences determined.
Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Tribune previously that his organization has concerns.
“Even if a university stops short of actual punishment, the mere fact that it’s coming down on one side will have a chilling effect on the other side,” Majeed said in April.
In the spring, UNC officials strongly denied violating the First Amendment by punishing students or others in the campus community for speech. They said then, and now, they simply seek to educate students about offensive rhetoric.
The intervening months, and 243 pages of documents paint a different picture.
Beyond educational conversations, Bias Response Team members have sought to “strengthen” a professor’s teaching by censoring what that professor can cover in class, and have advised another professor not to discuss some sensitive issues at all to avoid offending students.
Adam Steinbaugh, attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, tracks more than 150 Bias Response Teams around the country. Steinbaugh said it appears UNC administrators are asserting control over what professors teach.
“That should be alarming that an administrator is telling a professor, ‘Do not address this subject in your classes,’ ” Steinbaugh said.
It’s even more troubling, Steinbaugh said, that UNC actively encourages students to report on “…hostile or offensive classroom” environments, as the university does in large text on its Bias Response Team website.
In September, a professor brought up debate topics during a discussion of an Atlantic article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The professor discussed arguments for and against specific topics, including transgender issues. A student filed a complaint, and UNC responded.
“I advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom if possible to avoid the student’s expressed concerns,” a Bias Response Team member wrote.
The Atlantic article, which was co-written by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education CEO Greg Lukianoff, raised the specter of that type of response in classrooms across the country.
“Ironically, you had that article making that argument, and a professor used that to say, ‘Let’s talk about important subjects,’ and a student ran to an administrator,” Steinbaugh said.
Dean of Students Katrina Rodriguez, who is transitioning from a role overseeing the Bias Response Team to a new position as vice president for Campus Community and Climate at UNC, said there is room for improvement in the way the team handled some complaints.
“I would say that there are some aspects that we can revisit,” she said about discussions with professors. “There could have been perhaps another way to look at this.”
Steinbaugh also has concerns about UNC’s treatment of student speech issues. In August, the Bias Response Team at UNC investigated a student for displaying a Confederate flag in his dorm room. A UNC employee approached the student, and asked the student to move it so it wasn’t displayed so publicly (it was hanging in the student’s window).
Just because the student complied, doesn’t mean the student moved it voluntarily, Steinbaugh said.
“If you have someone that can write you up or subject you to a disciplinary process, that would raise substantial First Amendment concerns,” Steinbaugh said.
Rodriguez said UNC officials have no intention of trampling First Amendment rights. They simply want to educate students on the impact of their words, or in this case, symbols.
The hundreds of pages of reports for the 2015-16 academic year are heavily redacted, with UNC officials removing the names of students, professors, administrators, organizations, programs and classes.
Because of the redactions, The Tribune could not reach the professors in question or clarify any information in the reports with the people or organizations in question.
UNC’s faculty senate chairwoman, Alison Merrill and its local American Association of University Professors, Tom Griggs, could not be reached.
UNC’s faculty representative to the Board of Trustees, Vish Iyer, said via email that he didn’t know much about the situations in question, and that he is confident UNC administrators are committed to academic freedom.
UNC spokesman Nate Haas said the university redacted all of the information in order to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects students’ privacy.
Haas said any information that can be used to identify students had to be redacted, but Steinbaugh didn’t agree.
“…They have to redact information that a reasonable person, with knowledge of the community, could identify people in the report,” Steinbaugh said. “The average student at UNC is probably not going to know who filed a particular report. I think UNC is probably being a little over-aggressive in redacting some of this information.”
The information that isn’t redacted does provide a window into the types of activities and behaviors upon which UNC officials focus.
Whether it’s a student with a Confederate flag, or a student who says another student looks like a terrorist, or a professor discussing potential arguments on either side of transgender issues, UNC’s Bias Response Team seeks to educate — or otherwise deal with — the offending party only.
There’s a reason for that, Steinbaugh said.
“I think there is a lot of this happening at university campuses,” he said. “People are reluctant to stand up for their rights sometimes because they see it as too much trouble.”
Students, in short, might not want to go public in their fight to be able to use offensive language, even if it is their right. Steinbaugh, though, he said it’s important to defend unpopular speech.
“When we protect offensive or unpopular speech, that will protect our right to say things that are popular now, but might not be popular in the future,” Steinbaugh said.
The solution for unpopular speech is not university-led sanctions, he said. Instead, the solution is more speech. And universities should give their students the tools and confidence to make their own arguments, rather than rushing in to pick winners.
For her part, Rodriguez said she agreed. But there’s still a fine line UNC officials would like to walk.
“How do we work with students feeling the effects of somebody else’s speech?” Rodriguez said. “What is the conversation with them to help them go back to those students and have that discussion? How do we also help equip (students)?”
In the end, it’s a learning process, Rodriguez said.
“We do not want to be in the process of censoring — that is not the intent,” Rodriguez said. “And there are some pieces that we can do better the next time.”
Tyler Silvy covers education for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.
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