From preachers outside Cooper Hall to protesters in front of the library, people exercising their free speech rights can be seen often on USF’s campus.
Even though some of the messages delivered during these demonstrations can be offensive, much of it is protected under the First Amendment, meaning, according to Thomas Miller, associate professor in college student affairs, it cannot be censored by the university.
However, USF is looking to provide an outlet for students to express their concerns about offensive speech on campus through the creation of a bias response team.
Miller said he had been planning to launch this fall, but that didn’t happen. Meetings to finalize plans and work out training sessions are expected to go on in coming weeks, according to Makenzie Schiemann, director of Student Outreach and Support, director of the Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention and chair of the Students of Concern Assistance Team.
Schiemann originally served on the workgroup last academic year, helping to outline mission statements and principles for guiding the response team and its responses. She will serve as co-chair of the response team upon its inception.
“Our goal with the team is that we will be able to provide a space for students to be heard and for their concerns to be addressed,” she said.
The team will be available, Miller said, to listen to students’ concerns about speech or expression that may offend them but is not a rule violation or a violation of First Amendment rights.
Multiple levels of leadership across USF have approved the plan for the team, according to Miller, but the membership hasn’t been worked out.
“… Frankly, what we’re working on is filling out the membership (because) a key step here is to get the right people involved and then give ourselves some time to train and orient them,” Miller said.
Miller expects administrators, stakeholders and some faculty members to comprise the team. Membership will represent a wide range of departments, he said. The faculty members would be part of a group of three or four where one faculty member would be called upon for meetings at a time based on his or her availability.
“An aspect of the membership that we think is rather important is that we have some faculty members available to serve because we believe it’s possible that there might be some concerns expressed by students or others about difficult conversations in the classroom and it’s very important that we’re respectful of academic freedom, that we’re respectful of the rights of people to disagree with something that’s being expressed in the classroom and I think the faculty view there is essential that the bias response team not do anything that interferes with academic freedom of faculty members or students,” Miller said.
The team will take concerns through an online platform, Miller said. There will be a physical meeting place for members, but no new office, according to Schiemann. In some cases, Miller said, there may be no response. Students will have the option to remain anonymous, but the team will not be able to meet with them if they do so.
Complaints, once submitted, will be evaluated. If a concern requires redirection, the team will give it to the correct department. For example, if a student reports an act that is indeed criminal, the incident would be referred to University Police.
“The group (bias response team) is largely charged with helping students understand that students who feel victimized, that the university has empathy for them and cares about them and, under some circumstances, the bias response team might be able to meet with someone who’s alleged to have committed a bias-laden mistake,” Miller said.
The response from the team is on a case-by-case basis, Miller said. In some cases, the most the team might be able to do is tell the student the university is sorry and that the experience that left them feeling marginalized is not reflective of values endorsed by the university. Other times, a meeting with those who said the harmful speech might be in order. Schiemann said other responses might include educational programming or meetings with the community impacted on campus.
“Not everything that gets brought to the team will be actionable by the university,” Schiemann said. “So sometimes there might not be something that we can physically do, but we certainly spend time with the students that have been impacted by an incident and hear their concerns, validate their concerns and work with them to come up with a way that they can feel better supported on our campus.
“… It may not be actionable in the sense that nobody is going to get in trouble for what they said, because it’s free speech, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a learning opportunity there somewhere.”
The team will not have any powers to regulate speech, Miller said.
“We’re not trying to police speech,” Miller said. “We’re not trying to regulate what people can say … We can’t repress speech just because we don’t like what’s said.”
Miller said orientations for membership would be important to reinforce the idea that the team is not the “speech police.” Other universities, he said, have also had bias response teams, one such example being UF. Some universities have had problems with bias response teams going overboard and putting a muzzle on unpleasant speech, Miller said.
“We’re not (going to) do that,” Miller said. “We don’t like unpleasant speech. We don’t like speech that makes people feel hurt or marginalized, but it’s got to be allowed. We would be a worse place if we tried to restrict certain ideas from being expressed. We would be a worse university.”
Miller emphasized that the university cannot intervene in free speech that, while possibly offensive, is protected by the First Amendment.
“… If somebody expresses offensive, stupid, ridiculous speech that’s protected by the First Amendment, it’s not the university’s responsibility to respond to that,” Miller said. “It’s the audience.”
Miller said the best response to offensive speech is one’s free speech. He said he recommends ignoring the speech or engaging.
As far as the impact of the bias response team, Miller said he thinks it will have a modest effect on speech on campus, but said he hopes it will make those who feel marginalized by speech they have encountered on campus feel included. Schiemann said it is important for students to utilize the service once it becomes available in order for it to work.
“The team will only work if we get referrals, so we encourage students to let their voices be heard and to come forward and meet with the team if they feel as though they’ve been impacted by an incident of bias,” she said.