Q&A: Free Speech Tensions and Bias on College Campuses

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A new study co-authored by Cato College of Education member Ryan Miller is shedding light on efforts by higher education administrators nationwide to respond to bias and hate incidents while preserving students’ free speech rights. These issues are nothing new on college campuses, but over the past decade, many colleges and universities across the nation have created bias response teams so the campus community can better deal with bias and hate incidents.

UNC Charlotte communications spoke with Dr. Miller about how these teams operate, and the challenges administrators face when dealing with bias and hate on campus.

What motivated the research team to collect and share perspectives on this issue?

Numerous researchers have documented the experiences of minoritized groups on campus that often experience exclusion and harassment, including students of color, LGBTQ students, Muslim students and students with disabilities. Yet, far fewer researchers have explored how higher education administrators respond to bias.

My co-authors and I sought to fill this gap by interviewing administrators who serve on bias response teams at 19 institutions of higher education throughout the nation. It is important to know the perspectives of those grappling, day to day, with complex situations involving bias and hate.

Colleges and universities already have processes in place to respond to violations of institutional policy or criminal acts. By contrast, bias response teams often receive reports of bias that may include protected speech but which negatively affect individuals or groups on campus. We wanted to know: How do bias response teams address those situations—incidents where formal disciplinary action is not possible?

What effect do you think the current political climate has on the issue examined in this article?

We can see from current events that free speech on college and university campuses is a highly contentious and polarized issue. There is a misconception that bias response teams are running around campuses punishing students who speak their minds. These teams do not replace the existing mechanisms on campus to address policy violations or criminal acts.

Bias response teams do not dole out punishment. Instead, these teams receive reports from those affected by bias, work to support them and provide resources on an individual basis, explore voluntary and educational responses when appropriate, and track trends in the campus climate. Working with those targeted by bias often includes a conversation about the two-way street of free speech; in other words, educating students that they have the same free speech rights to respond to others exercising their speech rights.

In line with the educational mission of universities, teams evaluate when and where education about bias and its impact is needed on campus. It is important to note that teams design these approaches to be non-punitive and voluntary.

An incident may not violate a policy, but universities can still craft educational responses, such as statements to the campus community, hosting guest speakers, and providing educational workshops. I share in the study that student affairs administrators who serve on bias response teams may invite students in for an educational conversation about a particular incident and its impact, and students are free to decline those invitations.

Several participants in this study shared with me that they believe they can (and must) promote the values of creating an inclusive campus environment and protecting the free exchange of ideas. Bias response teams are where the rubber meets the road and institutions demonstrate that they hold both values. These values are not mutually exclusive.

It seems as if could be a real challenge for bias response teams to draw lines between criminal conduct, policy violations and First Amendment protected speech- could you speak to that and to any potential solutions?

The work of bias response teams is complex, and that complexity demands a team approach, rather than a single administrator deciding the best course of action. Teams often bring together representatives from student affairs, academic affairs, institutional equity, residence life, diversity/multicultural affairs, university police, and public relations to think through each incident and whether a response (and what type of response) is warranted. On most campuses, the “line” of criminal conduct or policy violations is actually quite clear. If a reported incident involves such an act, it is immediately referred to the appropriate entity, such as the conduct office or the police—and the bias response team does not determine the outcome.

In the absence of such a violation, incidents often involve expression and speech that is protected by some combination of the First Amendment (at public institutions), institutional policy, or state law. Context, time, and place matter; a student may be free to say whatever they please out on the campus generally but is not permitted to interrupt or stop university business, such as a class in session.

Of the hundreds of bias response teams that have recently been created, are there are a few instances of attempted overreach—teams inappropriately seeking to apply punishment or corrective action to students or faculty when a policy has not been violated? Sure, and these few incidents have received swift reversals from the institutions and outsized media attention, but they are the exception, not the rule. In those cases, colleges and universities move quickly to clarify the role and scope of the bias response team. That’s not unique to bias response; any rollout of a new policy or approach on a large scale involves a few missteps that need to be corrected, and the process is refined—but there’s no need to abandon the approach because a few individuals misinterpreted their charge.

Overall, what do you think the responses suggest about how administrators are handling incidents of bias?

I’m sure the participants in my study would agree that there are far too many acts of bias, hate, and harassment on campus, based on race, national origin, immigration status, religion, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation, among other categories. They see and hear about these incidents. Based on my study, bias response teams are seeking to improve the campus climate and make it a place where all feel welcomed and respected, and, when they do not, they know they have a resource to engage for support. Bias response work often involves difficult conversations and careful consideration of complex situations, but those tasked with bias response take their work seriously and carefully adhere to legal and policy limits they must operate within.


Ryan A. Miller is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership (Higher Education) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research agenda focuses on student development and the conditions for creating inclusive campus cultures in higher education.