US colleges’ bias hotlines lead to campus witch hunt culture


When I stepped on campus at NYU four years ago, I was handed a school ID by a public safety officer. On the back, I found a list of phone numbers: who to call if I was in danger, who to call if I was sick, and . . . a bias response line? Not long after, I found posters with the same number on the back of bathroom stalls, urging students to call and report bias on campus.

Discrimination and harassment are one thing, but I found myself wondering what exactly constituted “bias.” Since I had watched students and professors canceled for all manner of perceived transgressions, it left me wondering what range of incidents could fall under this umbrella.

I had never heard of them before, but evidently schools across the country, from Drew University to Penn State, and the University of Missouri, have similar hotlines. Countless other colleges and universities have bias response teams, many with online reporting forms.

After Rikki Schlott enrolled at NYU, she grew concerned when she learned that callers to a campus hotline were invited to gripe about a range of subjective, alleged offenses.
After Rikki Schlott enrolled at NYU, she grew concerned when she learned that callers to a campus hotline were invited to gripe about a range of subjective, alleged offenses.
Stephen Yang for NY Post

As a champion of free speech, I was concerned, so I dug a little deeper. That’s when I found a 2018 report on my school’s hotline, which divided the calls they received into groups. Category 1 constituted alleged violations of the university’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Category 2, however, included instances determined to be biased but not a violation. Those constituted 61% of the calls made. 

Some examples of Category 2 incidents included “concerns that marketing materials displayed on campus do not accurately represent the University’s diverse population” or “concerns about a culturally-insensitive comment.” I was perplexed by the subjectivity of incidents that could unleash an administrative team on perceived transgressors.

A “snow penis” sculpture at the University of Michigan prompted a call to the school's bias response team.
A “snow penis” sculpture at the University of Michigan prompted a call to the school’s bias response team.

To be clear, I do not condone harassment or discrimination under any circumstances, and I absolutely believe targeted students should have a place to turn. But they already do. As Alex Morey, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) told me, “Bias response teams are unnecessary, because existing laws preventing discrimination and harassment are already in place to curb unlawful behavior on campus.”

That leaves bias response teams to figure out the vague contours of “acceptable” speech at their own discretion. Indeed, a survey of administrators on such teams revealed an ill-defined mission that goes far beyond enforcing anti-discrimination policy. One administrator interviewed described their duty as combatting “whatever threat that might [be posed] to an inclusive campus.” Another said they determine “when the exercise of individual rights becomes reckless and irresponsible.”

“My rights were violated,” said J. Angelo Corlett, a San Diego State University philosophy prof barred from teaching two classes for saying epithets in a class about racial epithets.
“My rights were violated,” said J. Angelo Corlett, a San Diego State University philosophy prof barred from teaching two classes for saying epithets in a class about racial epithets.
Matt Furman for NY Post

These thresholds are subjective to say the least — and could invite any number of complaints. After investigating 230 college bias response teams around the country, a 2017 report by FIRE uncovered a whole host of complaints that range from laughable to downright censorious.

On-campus humor publication The Koala at the University of California San Diego, for example, was defunded by the school for poking fun at campus “safe spaces” after bias reports (including one requesting the school “stop funding” the publication) were submitted. An anonymous report at Ohio’s John Carroll University alleged that “the African-American Alliance’s student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable.” At the University of Michigan, a so-called “snow penis” sculpture was reported to their bias response team.

Encouraging students or teachers to file complaints about peers “creates a climate of fear” and “self-censoring,” said Alex Morey, a lawyer for freedom-of-speech group FIRE.
Encouraging students or teachers to file complaints about peers “creates a climate of fear” and “self-censoring,” said Alex Morey, a lawyer for freedom-of-speech group FIRE.
Getty Images

While not all reports result in punishment or investigation, introducing the bias response tripwire into a college community surely can’t be healthy for free speech. “Encouraging people to report their peers for protected speech creates a climate of fear around everyday discussions,” Morey said. “The threat of investigations . . . too often results in students and faculty self-censoring rather than risking getting in trouble.”

In a world where accidentally mixing up the names of two students of the same race or saying epithets in a class about epithets could jeopardize your reputation — or your job —encouraging students to call a hotline on transgressors is downright dystopian.

If we can’t discuss touchy subjects and wrestle with controversial ideas on campuses, where can we? We come to college to ask the unaskable and answer the unanswerable questions of our time. Sometimes that means we might express something inartfully — or, yes, sometimes offensively. But discussion, debate and resolution are the remedies to that tension. Not a hotline.

Rikki Schlott is a 22-year-old student, journalist and activist.



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