When you criticise the parlous state of free speech on campus these days, you’re often called hysterical. Disinviting speakers, banning microaggressions and clamping down on culturally appropriative parties is small fry, say the campus censors. ‘We’re not tyrants – go and criticise Turkey.’
This is just a ploy, of course – an attempt to shift the spotlight and avoid having to justify the not only censorious but patently unhinged behaviour of campus officials of late. But it’s also a crap one. Because with every year that passes, university administrations cook up more and more GDR-lite ways to cleanse campuses of disagreeable speech.
Just take Bias Response Teams (BRTs). According to a recent report by the American civil-liberties group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), these sinister-sounding groups of administrators operate on at least 231 US campuses (many colleges were less than cooperative with the researchers).
The University of Chicago defines its BRT as a group of ‘administrators who are available to support and guide students seeking assistance in determining how to handle a bias incident’. So-called bias incidents include any discriminatory ‘actions committed against or directed towards’ a person with protected characteristics.
In practice, these teams aren’t dealing with racist harassment or homophobic intimidation. Such things are rare occurrences on your average liberal arts college these days. Instead, they concern themselves with speech, opinions, sometimes just jokes. Most of which seem entirely innocent.
Reason’s Robby Soave waded through the University of Oregon BRT annual report last year. What he found was equal parts hilarious and terrifying. One student reported that a sign encouraging students to clean up after themselves was sexist. The sign was promptly removed. Another anonymous student complained that the student newspaper was giving insufficient coverage to trans and ethnic minority people. So the BRT went and had a word with the editor.
Things were stranger still at Bowdoin College, where students were placed on social probation and required to complete a re-education course for throwing a ‘fiesta’-themed party, with tequila and sombreros. An official of the student government labelled it a ‘racist incident’.