Report: Colorado Campuses Struggle With Preventing Discrimination, Promoting Free Speech

Feb 16, 2017

Nationwide, colleges have been working to make campuses more welcoming to all kinds of students. Many of Colorado’s major universities are no exception. One way to do this is the creation of a bias response team -- a group meant to address potentially discriminatory speech or actions. But according to a new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- also known as FIRE -- these teams may sometimes stifle free speech.

A bias response team is usually set up by a university to field complaints of offensive speech. Who serves on that team, and how that team responds to complaints, differs greatly from campus to campus. Even the definition of “bias” can vary. FIRE says this ambiguity is one of their largest concerns.

When it comes to the composition of a bias response team, the report was critical of the University at Northern Colorado for failing to invite students to participate.

“In other words, the lack of faculty or student membership may deprive Bias Response Teams of valuable insight into instances of purportedly offensive speech, as well as principles of academic freedom,” the report reads. “That may explain why the University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team warned at least one professor that he could face lengthy, intrusive investigations for permitting students to debate controversial issues in class.”

That incident was one of several which ignited a firestorm over UNC’s bias response team. Ultimately, the university chose to do away with it, instead routing bias-related incidents through other channels.

The report also criticized UNC for a lack of transparency, citing the fees the university attempted to charge for records of bias-related complaints.

“Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined that sunlight was the best of disinfectants. But a popular tactic of sunshine-shy administrators is the employment of hefty fees to locate and redact public records, notwithstanding open records laws encouraging universities to reduce or waive fees when releasing documents that would serve the public interest,” the report says. “The University of Northern Colorado attempted to charge FIRE hundreds of dollars for records eventually obtained by a media outlet, Heat Street, which revealed that UNC’s Bias Response Team had discouraged professors from discussing subjects of debate raging in legislatures and the media.”

UNC received a large share of FIRE’s criticism in the report. Last fall, when UNC president Kay Norton announced the dissolution of the team, she vowed to create another process for bias-related complaints. UNC spokesman Nate Haas says that process is ongoing.

“We’re obligated to collect, investigate and respond to all manner of student and faculty concerns,” Haas said in a statement. “As we reported in the fall, we no longer have a separate process for reporting bias-related concerns. Our provost and dean of students office continue to lead the effort to clarify how to handle academic and non-academic concerns that fall outside of the scope of the law.”

Many universities -- UNC included -- were criticized in the report for either not fully clarifying what would be considered a bias incident or going too far. FIRE pointed out that University of Colorado at Boulder included “political philosophy” and “political affiliation” as protected classes when it came to incidents of bias.

“When you ask students to report one another for their political speech, they’re essentially asking administrators to step in and side with them to say ‘your political speech offended this student and therefore offended the university, please don’t do that again,’” says Adam Steinbaugh, author of the report. “That can have a very chilling effect.”

CU Boulder disbanded their bias response team in 2015. Campus spokeswoman Deborah Mendez-Wilson says bias complaints are now handled differently. “Our campus has moved away from the term ‘bias’ in terms of response and education,” she says, adding that the university now focuses on students who are protected under federal discrimination laws. Students are able to take discrimination complaints to the campus’ Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance. University of Colorado Denver handles complaints in a similar way. The campus had a bias response team briefly in 2015, but according to spokeswoman Emily Williams, it never fielded a single complaint.

Not every Colorado university named in the report has done away with their bias response teams. Colorado State University’s team continues to operate. Representatives for the university declined to comment on FIRE's report, but said that they stand by their bias response team. 

The University of Denver also backed their team, which has only been around since last fall.

“We encourage our community to report on bias related incidents and offer them a variety of ways to do so,” says spokeswoman Theresa Ahrens. “Seeing an increase in reporting is positive because members of our community are realizing that there are mechanisms in place to address these incidents and they do not need to be silent.”