Mike Brake | May 5, 2022
Free speech in the crosshairs at OU, OSU, UCO
A new study by the national organization Speech First indicates that Bias Reporting Systems (BRS’s) are proliferating on both public and private higher education campuses, often to the detriment of First Amendment rights.
“Free Speech in the Crosshairs: Bias Reporting on College Campuses” examined a total of 821 institutions of higher learning and found that 454 of them (56 percent) have some form of BRS. Of those, 250 were identified at public colleges and universities, including the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Central Oklahoma. An additional 204 BRS’s were found at private colleges.
“Today, higher education is ground zero for testing out dangerous forms of censorship that instill fear, propel viewpoint discrimination, and restrict vital academic discourse,” the report said. BRS’s are “designed to silence dissenters, stifle open dialogue, and encourage students to report speech they deem unacceptable.”
The Speech First report indicates that BRS’s are proliferating. In 2017, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education conducted a similar survey and found 232 campus-based BRS’s.
Although different institutions call their BRS’s by somewhat different names, in general they provide a channel and encouragement for students and in many cases faculty and staff to file often-anonymous reports against peers whose speech or actions they deem offensive. While no one condones overtly hateful speech or actions like burning a cross, BRS reports very rarely rise to that level and in many cases are often founded in simple disagreements or offhand comments.
In fact, reports from some institutions indicate that very few such reports are ever upheld as valid. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) spent some years in a futile effort to get details about BRS reports and their outcomes from OU, and while those requests were repeatedly denied, what details that were released indicated that few of the reports resulted in any official action.
In many cases, those accused of violating campus speech codes may be referred to “counseling,” and some institutions go as far as to impose disciplinary action. The Speech First report notes that two federal courts have cited “the chilling effect of BRS’s.” The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said that BRS’s “impose an objective chill on speech because they act by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”
In fact, multiple surveys have indicated that as many as half of college students are hesitant or even afraid to speak their minds in fear of being labeled as racist, sexist, or some other “–ist.” The BRS reporting criteria at many campuses are so broad that even saying something that denigrates a rival sports team could be subject to a BRS report.
The Speech First report suggests several ways to combat the spread and abuse of BRS systems.
One is legal action, and the organization has been both active and successful in taking some universities to court for violating the First Amendment. Most recently, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a lawsuit against the University of Central Florida to move forward.
“Parents, students, and alumni should inform state and national legislators as well as the media about free speech concerns on their campuses,” the report suggested. Alumni and donors can also bring pressure, and for public universities, there is always the power of the purse via threats to trim appropriations.
Finally, “students should know their rights and recognize when those rights are being violated,” the report said.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.