You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Campus of Oklahoma State University

Oklahoma State University must disband its Bias Incidents Response Team.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Oklahoma State University must disband its Bias Incidents Response Team and rewrite its harassment policy, according to a settlement the university reached Monday with Speech First, a conservative free expression advocacy group that sued OSU in January 2023.

The suit was part of Speech First’s ongoing campaign to challenge university bias reporting systems, which the organization’s website claims “favors students who easily take offense,” and therefore makes “political speech and satire” particularly vulnerable.

“This is a major victory for OSU students, and we won’t stop until ALL students across the nation are able to exercise their constitutionally protected right to free speech,” Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, said in a press release Tuesday. “We have won a number of battles against colleges who knowingly violate students’ speech rights and will continue to do so.”

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, an OSU spokesperson said the university “embraces its role as a marketplace of ideas, and we believe a robust public discourse is a positive contribution to the process of addressing society’s most pressing challenges, which is our charge as a land-grant institution.”

Under the terms of the settlement, OSU also has to pay Speech First’s legal fees, which were $18,000.

This isn’t the first time Speech First has challenged a university’s harassment and bias response policies. It has filed—and won—lawsuits against the Universities of Texas, Michigan and Central Florida in recent years, and those universities also had to disband their bias response teams and rewrite harassment policies as a result.

Speech First sued Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2021 arguing that its bias response team violated the First Amendment. A federal judge sided with the university and an appellate judge also upheld that decision. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take the case because Virginia Tech had already discontinued its bias response team for unrelated reasons.

Although critics have characterized bias response teams as thought police squadrons eager to suppress free speech, advocates have said that’s a misconception and that the teams are designed to inform students about bias and to keep track of such instances on campus.

The complaint Speech First filed against OSU said administrators had “created a series of rules and regulations that deter, suppress, and punish speech about the political and social issues of the day,” in violation of laws protecting free speech.

The lawsuit cited the university’s harassment policy as an example. It disciplines students who engage in speech deemed intimidating, verbally abusive or other “persistent, severe, or pervasive” behavior that “threatens or endangers” another student’s mental health without detailing what the university considers “abusive” or “intimidating,” according to the suit.

The suit also described an OSU computer policy that prevented students from using a university email address or internet network to send political campaign materials as “an overbroad and content-based restriction on protected speech that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

(That policy was updated last summer in a separate agreement with Speech First, and students are now permitted to use their university email or a university network to send political campaign materials.)

The suit also took issue with OSU’s bias-incidents policy, which it said “poses a grave risk of chilling the open and unfettered discourse that should be central to higher education” and that the “bureaucratic processes—and the vague, overbroad, and viewpoint-based definition of ‘bias incident’ that triggers them—violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

‘Concrete Injuries’

All of those policies caused at least three OSU students who are also members of Speech First, but were not identified by name in the suit, to suffer “concrete injuries as a direct result of the University’s unconstitutional policies and actions,” according to the complaint.

“These students want to engage in speech covered by the University’s harassment policy, computer policy, and bias-incidents policy, but they credibly fear that the expression of their deeply held views will be considered ‘biased,’ ‘harassing,’ ‘unwarranted,’ ‘intimidating,’ and the like.”

The complaint described how these policies affected those students.

In one instance, it characterized unidentified “Student B” as “politically conservative” and holding “views that are unpopular, controversial, and in the minority on campus,” including his belief that abortion is “a grave evil,” the Black Lives Matter organization “has had a corrosive impact on race relations” and that “marriage is only between a man and a woman.”

While Student B enrolled at OSU “to learn in a challenging environment where students and faculty are free to engage in lively, fearless debate and deliberation,” according to Speech First’s suit, the university’s policies allegedly discouraged such discussions.

“When another classmate or member of the university community voices contrary views about these and other controversial topics, including abortion, the nuclear family, gender identity, or racial justice, Student B wants to point out the flaws in their arguments and convince them to change their minds,” the suit said. “Student B also does not fully express himself or talk about certain issues because he knows that students, faculty, or others will likely report him to University officials for committing a ‘bias’ incident.”

Although the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma originally dismissed Speech First’s case against OSU because the suit withheld the identities of students it described, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the district court.

The settlement signed by the two parties said OSU must include the following definition of harassment in its updated policy: “Unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the University’s education program or activity.”

And in addition to disbanding the bias response team, OSU must remove all references to it from websites and publications. As of Tuesday afternoon, the webpage that once hosted information about the bias response team displayed an error message.

Next Story

Written By

More from Free Speech