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Monday, June 11, 2018

Justice Department Files Statement of Interest in Michigan Free Speech Case

The Department of Justice today filed a Statement of Interest in Speech First, Inc., v. Schlissel in the Eastern District of Michigan. The plaintiff, Speech First, a nationwide organization dedicated to defending civil liberties, alleges that the University of Michigan has adopted policies prohibiting and punishing speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  Speech First alleges that the University of Michigan’s policies on “harassment,” “bullying,” and “bias” are so vague and overbroad as to prompt students to limit their speech out of fear that they might be subject to disciplinary sanction, including “individual education” or “restorative justice” at the hands of the University’s Bias Response Team. 

The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that the University of Michigan’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits “harassment,” “bullying,” and “bias,” is unconstitutional because it offers no clear, objective definitions of the violations.  Instead, the Statement refers students to a wide array of “examples of various interpretations that exist for the terms,” many of which depend on a listener’s subjective reaction to speech. 

The United States also argues that the University’s Bias Response Policy chills protected speech through its Bias Response Team.  The Bias Response Team, which consists of University administrators and law enforcement officers, has the authority to subject students to discipline and sanction.  It encourages students to report any suspected instances of bias, advising them: “[t]he most important indication of bias is your own feelings.”  According to the plaintiff, the Bias Response Team has responded to more than 150 alleged incidents of bias in the last year.  

In filing the Statement of Interest, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio provided the following statement:

“Freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack. This Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is committed to promoting and defending Americans’ first freedom at public universities." 

This is the fourth Statement of Interest filed by the Department of Justice in a First Amendment case under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The first was filed on Sept. 26, 2017 in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the second was filed on Oct. 24, 2017 in Shaw v. Burke, and the third was filed on January 25 in Young America’s Foundation and Berkeley College Republicans v. Janet Napolitano.

Updated June 11, 2018