University Revises ‘Chilling’ Student Snitching System After Receiving Legal Demand Letter
A public university in Wisconsin revised its bias reporting system to clarify that it will not punish students for constitutionally protected speech, according to a Monday press release by the legal nonprofit Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF).
SLF sent 12 legal demand letters in October 2022 to universities across the country that incorporated policies that allegedly violated students’ speech rights, according to its website. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) revised the language on its bias reporting system, through which students and faculty can report hate or biased incidents, to confirm it will not punish constitutionally protected speech.
“Hate or bias incidents do not necessarily violate the law or university policy,” the bias reporting system website now reads. “As a public university, UWM is bound by the First Amendment and will not sanction or punish a member of the university community for exercising their right to freedom of speech and expression.”
SLF wrote in October that the school’s reporting system was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad” and posed a chilling effect on student speech, according to the letter. It demanded the school disband the system or, at a minimum, “clarify that speech is protected and cannot be subject to any investigation or punishment.”
The university complied by adding the specification to the reporting system website and confirms that hate speech, which it defined as “hateful comments that demean a person or group of people based on their personal characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation” is protected by the First Amendment. While the university will no longer punish such speech, it maintained it will provide “care and support to those impacted by hateful and offensive speech and expression through the hate/bias reporting process.”
SLF announced the revision as a victory, according to Monday’s press release.
“We are proud that our demand letter was a catalyst for student activism at UWM, where conservative students took the initiative to meet with administrators and demand changes to the bias reporting system,” Cece O’Leary, SLF’s director of the 1A Project, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Thanks to our united efforts, UWM took our demands seriously and recognized that it has a duty to protect the speech of every student on campus.”
Bias reporting systems are often used to silence conservative students on campus for fear of retaliation, according to SLF general counsel Kimberly Hermann.
“We stand behind those students, and we are pleased that UWM has met its duty to protect the speech of every student on campus,” she said, according to the press release.
Bias reporting systems are used by higher education institutions nationwide to monitor speech that could be deemed offensive on campus. Students and faculty use these systems to report on each other for a variety of incidents including offensive jokes, pronoun misuse and comments deemed as racist, sexist or homophobic, a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis previously found.
A Miami University report called attention to a dormitory sign that read all solicitors had to be able to “Define the Word ‘Woman,’” which the reporter claimed made “trans students feel excluded and unsafe.”
A University of Connecticut staff member reported an individual for wearing Middle Eastern clothing, but it was later determined the individual had Middle Eastern heritage.
The University of Maine revised its bias reporting system in December 2022 to clarify it would not punish protected speech while Southern Utah University fully disbanded its system shortly before the end of the year. SLF sent both universities legal demand letters imploring them to fix allegedly unconstitutional policies.
UWM did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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