If there’s a place in American culture known for ironic talk, needling and mockery, it’s a cafeteria or dorm room on a college campus.
But students at the University of Kentucky and a host of other institutions of higher learning across America had better beware, warns a privacy-rights group, lest they be reported to the school’s Bias-Incident Response Team.
The University of Kentucky is one of 153 universities with “bias” policies that pose a threat to free speech, according to FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Kentucky’s team, points out FIRE, monitors “activity that intimidates, demeans, mocks, degrades, marginalizes, or threatens individuals or groups,” whether “intentional or unintentional.”
FIRE, calling them “Orwellian systems,” notes the universities ask students “to report — often anonymously — their neighbors, friends, and professors for any instances of biased speech and expression.”
A bias incident can be defined so broadly it includes “large amounts of constitutionally protected speech,” FIRE warned.
“With this definition, the university is encouraging students to report on one another, and on their professors, for saying virtually anything that offends anyone else,” the activist group said.
University spokesman Jay Blanton told Fox News in a statement he believes the principles of free speech and creating a welcoming and safe environment are not incompatible.
“There is no penalty for exercising your free speech rights on our campus,” Blaton insisted. “Except for reasonable restrictions necessary for university operations, our entire campus is open to free speech.
“But we also will not hesitate in speaking out in opposition when someone uses speech or words to hurt or harm, to demean or denigrate. And we will not hesitate to provide support to those who feel targeted by hurtful speech.”
A nonprofit called Speech First is suing the University of Michigan in federal court for imposing speech codes it charges are unconstitutional and overly vague.
FIRE named the University of Kentucky’s bias response policy its Speech Code of the Month for May and encouraged students to draw attention to codes on their own campuses that infringe on First Amendment rights by emailing [email protected] with a link to the policy and a brief description of why it should be evaluated.
Kentucky’s team, though not involved in “disciplinary decisions,” includes university police staff and campus conduct administrators as well as staff from the counseling center and diversity office.
“Short of official punishment, it is difficult to imagine a greater deterrent to free and open debate than knowing the administration is actively asking the campus community to anonymously report offensive speech to literal speech police,” FIRE said.
The organization says it’s “understandable that universities want to stay attuned to the campus climate in order to create an environment that is as welcoming as possible to people of all backgrounds.”
“But there are surely ways to do this short of creating a mini-surveillance state on campus.”