Opinion: Bias-based Incident Protocol Threatens Free Speech

Nathan Gjesdal. The Independent's Online Manager, Nathan Gjesdal.

During the recent celebration of PRIDE day at Clark, two bathrooms were marked as all-gender for the duration of the event, foreshadowing Clark’s renovation of 28 single-occupancy restrooms by the end of the summer.

However, as reported by The Independent, unnamed vandals decided to voice their disapproval, leaving a written statement and decorating the bathroom floor with feces and urine.

Following the incident, Clark issued a student-wide email introducing the Bias-based Incident Response Team, a number of Clark administrators and staff promising a “timely and effective response to bias-based incidents at any facility or venue owned, operated, or leased by Clark College.”

Clark’s message was correct when it said “vandalism and destruction of property will never be acceptable means of expression.” But the Bias-based Incident Protocol that Clark uses to fight unacceptable expression also poses a threat to the legitimate free-speech of Clark students, and will continue to do so until it is revised or scrapped.

The protocol defines a “bias-based incident” as follows:

“A bias-based incident involves conduct — including words, slurs, graffiti, or actions — explicit, implied or perceived — that violates Clark College’s policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, creed, disabled veteran status, marital status or Vietnam-era veteran status in its programs and activities.”   

The protocol also outlines how Clark administration may respond upon a report of such an incident. They may contact the BIT or Security services, administration, ASCC leadership and exempt staff. They may also send an email to all students describing the ‘incident’ and the action the college will take.

Especially noteworthy is the protocol’s inclusion of “explicit, implied or perceived” in its definition of a bias-based incident. This ensures that the only requirement for something to be branded an “incident” is for someone to think it is one, which could facilitate possible abuse.

Students should have cause to worry based on the team’s name alone. The libertarian magazine Reason reported May 10 on the activities of the University of Oregon’s similarly-titled Bias Response Team. In the article, Robby Soave exposed UO’s annual report of the team’s activities.  The team investigated a professor who “wrote an insulting comment on their online blog,” which included investigating a professor who “wrote an insulting comment on their online blog,” and removing a sign in housing that promoted cleanliness because a student said it was sexist.

The New Republic reported in March that over 100 colleges and universities have bias response teams. “‘Police’ is an apt word” for these teams, the authors wrote.

Azhar Majeed, associate director of legal and public advocacy with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in an email that Clark’s discrimination policy classifies a significant amount of constitutionallyprotected speech as “harassment,” including “verbal conduct that denigrates or shows hostility towards an individual.”   

“I would certainly say that the protected speech of Clark students is at risk of investigation or disciplinary action,” Majeed said.

Van Forsyth, a Clark U.S. history instructor, noted incidents of the censorship of mere words in America’s past.

“In 1798, President John Adams had Congress pass the Sedition Act which imposed a fine and/or imprisonment on anyone who was found guilty of publishing, writing or merely orally stating anything of ‘a false, scandalous, and malicious nature about the government’ [such as President Adams’ policies],” Forsyth wrote in an email.

We shouldn’t stoop to investigating Clark students who do so much as utter words we dislike, in the name of fairness and equality. As a public college, Clark should be a haven for the free exchange of opinions and ideas, even flagrantly incorrect and bigoted ones. Sunlight is the best disinfectant; showing hatred for what it is, especially in an academic setting, will always be more effective than policing speech.

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