Jeff Sessions, Justice Department defend college students First Amendment rights

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Jeff Sessions is making headlines this week and setting off the liberal left with common sense, constitutional actions. Among his actions giving the “open minded,” “tolerant,” progressives heartburn is the fact that the Justice Department has decided to take on schools infringing on students First Amendment rights under the guise of attempting to police “biased speech.”

Weighing in on a University of Michigan case, the Justice Department said:

The Department of Justice today filed a Statement of Interest in Speech First, Inc., v. Schlissel in the Eastern District of Michigan. The plaintiff, Speech First, a nationwide organization dedicated to defending civil liberties, alleges that the University of Michigan has adopted policies prohibiting and punishing speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  Speech First alleges that the University of Michigan’s policies on “harassment,” “bullying,” and “bias” are so vague and overbroad as to prompt students to limit their speech out of fear that they might be subject to disciplinary sanction, including “individual education” or “restorative justice” at the hands of the University’s Bias Response Team.

The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that the University of Michigan’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits “harassment,” “bullying,” and “bias,” is unconstitutional because it offers no clear, objective definitions of the violations.  Instead, the Statement refers students to a wide array of “examples of various interpretations that exist for the terms,” many of which depend on a listener’s subjective reaction to speech.

The United States also argues that the University’s Bias Response Policy chills protected speech through its Bias Response Team.  The Bias Response Team, which consists of University administrators and law enforcement officers, has the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction.  It encourages students to report any suspected instances of bias, advising them: “[t]he most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”  According to the plaintiff, the Bias Response Team has responded to more than 150 alleged incidents of bias in the last year.

In filing the Statement of Interest, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio provided the following statement:

“Freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack. This Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is committed to promoting and defending Americans’ first freedom at public universities.”

This is the fourth Statement of Interest filed by the Department of Justice in a First Amendment case under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The first was filed on Sept. 26, 2017 in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the second was filed on Oct. 24, 2017 in Shaw v. Burke, and the third was filed on January 25 in Young America’s Foundation and Berkeley College Republicans v. Janet Napolitano.

In the case at hand in Michigan was summed up in an op-ed by Nicole Neily the president of Speech First, a membership association that defends students’ free speech rights on campus, published in the Hill:

Michigan complements its code with something called a bias response team, a system that encourages fellow students who overhear comments (even ones taken out of context, between friends) to report offensive language to administrators, which is then tracked and publicly shared on the school’s website as a visible reminder of the student body’s various sins. Incidents are investigated, potentially subjecting students whose speech offends another student to punishment by process.

Depending on the outcome, he or she may be sent for “restorative justice” — a benign euphemism for a modern-day reeducation camp — to atone for the thought crime in question. But even if he or she is exonerated, the stigma of going through such a process, as well as the distraction from his/her studies and the burden imposed on his/her time, serves to significantly deter students from expressing ideas outside the mainstream.

Regardless of your positions on issues, we should all fear this type of selective thought and word-policing and the encouragement that in the real world it would be acceptable. Schools can’t force tolerance and decency on people. Nor should they be able to implement subjective rules to force alternative views and ban, or prohibit, the expression of dissenting views in the name of “bias.”

Imagine the ways in which such subjective criteria could be used as a weapon to silence anyone at any time based on personal preferences of the listener. It is frightening that places of higher education where young adults should be encouraged to express themselves freely and to learn to approach conflict in a positive way and figure out outcomes themselves, administrators would implement such restrictive policies.

If a student overhears something that they take offense to they have options A) Walk away or B) Respectfully confront the person talking. That’s what happens everyday in public places throughout our nation. No safe spaces needed. No infringing on one’s rights.

There are still issues in our communities that are very controversial. I struggle with how I will talk with and what I will teach my children about the transgender community. I don’t come from a place of hate, or ignorance, or bigotry, but I do favor science and I believe strongly that you can’t simply declare your gender different than what your genetics say. My views are shaped by scientific research and my religion and were I to go back to school and find myself in an environment of discussion I should hope my thoughts would be as welcome as those opposed to mine. I would expect, if not demand, that my constitutional rights give me the ability to respectfully discuss my views without fear of disciplinary action.

I wrote about an extreme version this campus censoring in a post about University of Alabama student Harley Barber, being forced out due to a video which included racist views. While her comments were certainly out of line and reprehensible, making her a pariah wasn’t the best course of action. Barber, like many others in college do at some point in early adulthood, spoke and acted from a place of ignorance. She just happened to do so in a racist way which we have come to have a “zero tolerance” policy for. I spoke up then for her First Amendment rights.

While I believe wholeheartedly there needs to be standards of decency for universities and racists and hateful behaviors can’t go unanswered for the consequences shouldn’t always be life defining or altering. We must take into account all factors including ones ability to learn and move forward. There are those on the left who would have you believe violent criminals deserve a second chance but those who use the “N-word” should be vilified for life. We can and should do better than that as a society.

The Justice Department was right to step in on this case and to defend the rights of those who have and will inevitability be harmed by those who wish to silence their voices and strip away their rights. Good for Attorney General Sessions!

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