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University of Michigan settles free speech lawsuit

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The University of Michigan (UM) will not reinstate its Bias Response Team, according to a settlement with a Washington-based nonprofit, Speech First, which sued the university alleging its policies violated free speech on campus.

The parties reached an agreement to settle the lawsuit last week. The lawsuit has been dismissed without finding that UM policies infringed on free speech rights.

Filed in May 2018, the lawsuit claimed the Bias Response Team’s policies “capture[d] staggering amounts of protected speech and expression,” alleging the team investigated more than 150 reports of “expressions of bias” since April 2017.

The team was tasked to investigate campus incidents that could be deemed racist, sexist, hostile or offensive to LGBTQ students or other groups.

The settlement follows months of court battles.

U.S. District Court Judge Linda V. Parker in August 2018 denied Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction against UM, saying the nonprofit lacked standing since the Bias Response Team only worked with students on a voluntary basis and had no disciplinary authority.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel issued a majority opinion on Sept. 23 that said Speech First had legal standing because “[b]oth the referral power and the invitation to meet with students objectively chill speech.”

“Speech First recognizes that the Response Team lacks any formal disciplinary power and that bias incidents are not directly punishable under the Statement, but maintains that the Response Team acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech. We agree,” the appeals court ruled.

UM replaced the Bias Response Team with the Campus Climate Support system at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year with a goal to provide “support for those who may have been targets of or affected by campus climate concerns.”

No payments are involved in the settlement and each party agreed to absorb their own legal fees, according to a UM document.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in a statement that the settlement makes it “abundantly clear” the lawsuit was unnecessary, adding that the university is committed to protecting free speech.

“Vigorous debate on all sides of an issue has been a hallmark of this campus before and during the lawsuit,” Fitzgerald said. “We have confidence that true diversity of thought will continue to flourish on our campus.”

Speech First President Nicole Neily said the settlement protected free speech on college campuses.

“Speech First is thrilled that the University of Michigan has finally agreed to respect the First Amendment rights of its students,” Neily said. “Speech First’s victory paves the way for college students who may have been too fearful or intimidated to express their opinions to finally embrace their free speech rights and engage in true academic discourse. While our battle is far from over, we are pleased that the administration will no longer maintain policies that have both the purpose and the effect of chilling student speech.”