It’s Now 1984 at the University of Michigan


It’s Now 1984 at the University of Michigan

May 16, 2018 4 min read
Hans A. von Spakovsky

Election Law Reform Initiative Manager, Senior Legal Fellow

Hans von Spakovsky is an authority on a wide range of issues—including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration.
Their First Amendment rights are severely restricted, no matter what they are doing or where they are. Yuankun/Getty Images

Students at the University of Michigan, beware. If you say anything politically incorrect or out-of-line with the political and social orthodoxy on your campus, you may get a knock on your dorm room door from the university’s equivalent of the Thought Police, and be forced into a re-education camp. Or you may be suspended or thrown out of school, potentially damaging your educational prospects and your entire future professional career.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider a new lawsuit filed in federal court in Michigan by Speech First, Inc., against the president of the University of Michigan, other senior university officials, and the entire board of trustees. Speech First is a nationwide membership organization of students, faculty, and alumni (including students at Michigan) dedicated to preserving First Amendment rights on college campuses.

That is a very tough job these days when so many students and administrators don’t believe the First Amendment should apply in their dormitories, their classrooms, or anywhere else on campus (or off campus, for that matter).

Don’t be surprised if what I am about to describe sounds like a scene out of George Orwell’s 1984, where the Thought Police would arrest any citizen criticizing the regime or otherwise disagreeing with the official view on everything from politics to culture. And they used surveillance that included informers and electronic devices like cameras and microphones.

That is what the University of Michigan has been transformed into -- the equivalent of Oceania in 1984 or the former East Germany. As the lawsuit says, the university has created an “elaborate investigatory and disciplinary apparatus to suppress and punish speech other students deem ‘demeaning,’ ‘bothersome,’ or ‘hurtful’.” Yes, really: The student disciplinary code defines “harassment” as any “unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual” (emphasis added).

In other words, as the complaint says, “the most sensitive student on campus effectively dictates the terms under which others may speak.” Under this absurd but dangerous policy, a student expressing his positive opinion about Donald Trump could be considered “bothersome” to the many (or any of the) liberal students on campus.

One of the students in the lawsuit believes that Black Lives Matter is “a hateful group that promotes racial division” and has “sowed division [on campus] through intimidation by, for example, disrupting speakers and events and vandalizing student displays.” But that student is afraid to express those views because he “credibly fears” that those views will be considered harassment or bullying. There seems little doubt that he is right.

Given the protests I have encountered giving speeches on campuses about immigration, including criticizing sanctuary policies and praising the enhanced enforcement efforts of the Trump administration, there is also little doubt that any student voicing similar sentiments or even using the politically incorrect but accurate legal term “illegal aliens” would be charged.

This speech code violates fundamental First Amendment rights to speak freely, and will have a profoundly chilling effect on students and faculty -- assuming there are any faculty members at Michigan who stand out from the liberal academic hierarchy that runs most campuses these days like the Inner Party in Oceania.

The university has its version of the Stasi and Orwell’s Thought Police -- a “Bias Response Team” that investigates supposed “bias” complaints from offended students -- students who can file their complaints anonymously. So if you are accused of wrongdoing, you don’t even have a right to confront your accuser -- just like the former citizens of East Germany where the Stasi had literally hundreds of thousands of informers who could be your next-door neighbor or even a member of your own family. Or in this case, a student down the hall or from one of your classes.

If you think this Star Chamber process is limited to verbal speech, think again. Just like the electronic surveillance in Oceania, the “Bias Incident Report Log” posted by Michigan on its website shows that the Bias Response Team may come after you for what you do and say in “On-line/Social Media” communications including texts, emails, and Twitter.

The log also shows that the campus secret police -- sorry, the Bias Response Team -- also goes after “Off Campus” speech. So students aren’t safe anywhere. Their First Amendment rights are severely restricted, no matter what they are doing or where they are.

So a student may literally receive a knock on his door “from a team of University officials threatening to refer the student to formal disciplinary authorities” for something some unknown, anonymous informant alleges that he said, something the informant doesn’t like, or doesn’t agree with, or is uncomfortable with. Unless, of course, as the complaint says, the student agrees to submit “to ‘restorative justice,’ ‘individual education,’ or ‘unconscious bias training’.”

In other words, the only way a student may be able to avoid formal charges against meritless claims is by agreeing to submit to the academic equivalent of a communist-style “re-education” camp or brainwashing about the latest liberal fad like “unconscious bias.”

The University of Michigan doesn’t seem to care that, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “First Amendment protections [do not] apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.” Moreover, “the mere dissemination of ideas -- no matter how offensive to good taste -- on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” In fact, the point of the First Amendment -- and this is particularly important in the academic setting -- is “to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.”

The complaint contains a list of specific incidents that show that this draconian speech code is a one-way ratchet: it is used against those who express conservative opinions and ideas. Disruptions by liberal students against conservatives are tolerated and ignored by the university. Or as one student says in the complaint, “the University has only made it a safe place for those who have the same democratic views that the University promotes.”

We can only hope that this lawsuit succeeds in forcing the University of Michigan to throw out its shameful policy. Universities are supposed to be places where vigorous and often contentious -- but civil -- discussions take place and where the flow of new ideas and new concepts is promoted so they can be examined and discussed.

Today, the University of Michigan -- and many other colleges -- is not that place.

This piece originally appeared in PJ Media