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DOJ Backs Claim of Free-Speech Violations at University of Michigan

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. (WT-shared Jha4ceb at wts wikivoyage / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

The Trump administration has decided that anti-bullying policies on college campuses are a threat to free speech rights and is using the resources of the Justice Department to go after them, most recently at the University of Michigan.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the department filed a statement of interest in a federal court brief in Michigan’s Eastern District, supporting a student group called Speech First that alleged that its members were discriminated against for wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and supporting President Trump.

“Instead of protecting free speech, the university imposes a system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech,” John M. Gore, an acting assistant attorney general, wrote in a brief.

The Times reports that the suit takes aim at “a series of events at Michigan, including an incident in which Charles Murray, a conservative speaker invited to campus by Young Americans for Freedom, was [according to the lawsuit] ‘met with chants, music, intentionally annoying cellphone sounds, an overhead projector displaying an arrow pointing to him along with the words white supremacist.’ 

Speech First was formed in February and sued the University of Michigan in May.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “the Justice Department also challenged the constitutionality of the university’s Bias Response Team, which the department said ‘consists of university administrators and law enforcement officers’ and, the department says, ‘has the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction.’ 

In response, a University of Michigan spokesman told the The Detroit News that “[c]ontrary to the department’s statement, the university’s Bias Response Team does not ‘ha[ve] the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction.’ Rather, it provides support to students on a voluntary basis.”

As Michigan grapples with a Trump administration challenge, colleges across the country are watching for signs that coming events might cause trouble on their campuses, according to the Times. The implications of on-campus free speech debates have spread far beyond students and faculty, to op-ed pages, Twitter feeds and even dinner tables across America.

Protests last year against right-wing, former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s appearances at UC Berkeley dominated headlines for weeks. New York Times op-ed writer Bari Weiss made a name for herself in March by telling liberals that they are the real bigots for protesting feminist contrarian Christina Hoff Sommers’ talk at Lewis and Clark Law School.

Michigan is the fourth school to be the target of a statement of interest by the Justice Department in a free speech case. The others include Georgia Gwinnett College, Los Angeles Pierce College and the University of California at Berkeley.

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