According to a February report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), it’s not exactly a small trend, either — there are now “232 public and private American colleges and universities” that maintain BRTs, some of which even encourage students to report one another for using offensive speech:
"This sounds like the stuff of Orwell…even he might have found the name 'Bias Response Team' to be over-the-top." https://t.co/rVxL5lklNg
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) February 22, 2017
According to FIRE’s report, this widespread presence means that there are now at least 2.84 million college students in the U.S. whose speech is monitored by bias response units.
While colleges “tend to only publish vague reports” on how students are actually punished by BRTs — ranging from “a verbal reprimand” to “explicit punishment” — FIRE Senior Program Officer Adam Steinbaugh notes that the effect is clear:
“Inviting students to report a broad range of speech to campus authorities casts a chilling pall over free speech rights.”
What’s more, FIRE found that almost half of these colleges employ members of campus law enforcement on their BRTs, making the groups quite literally “speech police”:Image Credit: Screenshot/FIRE
As to what exactly constitutes speech worthy of the Bias Response Team’s attention, the definition seems to deviate wildly.
In Wisconsin, one college dispatched their “Bias Incident Team” after a group of students dressed up like the “Three Blind Mice” for Halloween, saying that it “makes fun of a disability.”
University of Kentucky students can report being discriminated against because of “smoker status,” while at University of North Carolina at Charlotte; someone drawing politically-motivated cartoons or pictures also falls under the definition of bias.
— Sarah McLaughlin (@sarahemclaugh) February 7, 2017
While some might argue that concerns about BRTs are theoretical, and that they present no real danger, history seems to teach a different lesson.
As Inga Andrews, a German woman who grew up under Nazi rule, previously told Independent Journal Review:
“What reminds me more of Hitler than anything else isn’t Trump, it’s the destruction of freedom of speech on the college campuses — the agendas fueled by the professors.
That’s how Hitler started, he pulled in the youth to miseducate them, to brainwash them, it’s happening today.”
To be sure, respect for the First Amendment has become a hot-button issue recently, from the highest levels of government down to television shows.
The idea that colleges across the U.S. are implementing programs designed to literally police students’ constitutionally-protected free speech, however, seems as troubling as any of them.