Is There a Problem With STOP Bias?

Photo by Martin Abegglen, Flickr Want to hear a joke? Women’s rights.

Have I offended anybody yet?

Why do Jews have big noses? Because the air is free.

How about now? Well if I have, you can report me here, on Syracuse University’s STOP Bias Website.

The STOP Bias effort was created to provide the SU community with the tools and resources needed to identify and hopefully end bias on campus. One of its key features is a reporting tool where students and faculty can anonymously report incidents of bias online. According to its website, bias is “treating someone negatively because of their actual or perceived: age, creed, dis(ability), ethnic or national origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, political or social affiliation, race, religion, or sexual orientation.” Examples of bias include telling offensive jokes (as I just did), excluding others, using racial slurs, using the “r-word” or “f-word,” using blue signs for boys and pink signs for girls, stereotyping, etc. The list could go on.

While it is great that SU has a mechanism where students can report these incidents, it is what the university does with this information that becomes a potential threat to our rights. Some fear that the information posted could be used by the university to investigate and possibly punish students for using offensive language, ultimately chilling open speech on campus.

Among those concerned is Professor David Rubin, the former Dean of Newhouse, who led the Working Group on Free Speech last semester. The Working Group’s 2015 report mentions that the STOP Bias campaign is an important part of the free exchange of ideas “so long as this site is not an official undertaking of the university administration.”

Rubin elaborated saying that “students are perfectly entitled to build a STOP Bias type of website. They’re certainly free to post to it. That’s their freedom of speech… University administrators are free to read it if they're trying to gauge the climate on campus about bias and if they want to get a sense of what events might have occurred on campus… So as a tool to gain more information… this website and the information on it can be useful.”

However, he goes on to say that the website becomes a concern if the administration starts using that information to launch investigations of students who allegedly used offensive speech.

“Face it, it’s completely unverified,” says Rubin. “It’s simply people posting whatever they want to post. It could be complete fiction for all anyone knows.”

Professor Roy Gutterman, head of the Tully Center for Free Speech, points out that student’s would still have due process even if the university began using the website to start investigations.

“There are some steps between investigating and actually punishing someone,” says Gutterman. Students wouldn’t be automatically punished if reported on the website.

Nevertheless, even the threat of an investigation could threaten speech on campus.

Zachary Greenberg, a law student who was part of the Working Group on Free Speech, says students might be deterred from engaging in debate and rigorous academic discussions that are vital to a university setting.

Furthermore, he believes students shouldn’t be investigated in the first place because most of what is listed as “bias” on the website is protected speech.

“It defines bias very broadly. Pretty much anything could be bias. Telling jokes, name calling, disagreeing politically. Many of these things happen every day on a college campus,” says Greenberg. They are “benign incidents,” as he put it.

Regardless of how the university defines bias, it is important to note that even offensive, or “biased,” speech is protected under the First Amendment. According to Rubin, and Supreme Court Justice Roberts, the First Amendment exists to protect offensive speech.

So, even if a student is found guiltily of using “biased” speech, it does not necessarily mean they should be punished for it.

“We don’t believe students should be punished for engaging in allegedly bias speech” says Rubin. “We basically believe in the principle of answering speech with speech.”

In other words, if you say something to me that I don’t like or find offensive, I should simply tell you, or give a rebuttal.

“Have a frank exchange and then that’s the end of it,” puts Rubin. “You don’t always need to resort to the law to punish people, or, in the case of the university, resort to the administration."

Fortunately, as of right now, the university administration has not used to the STOP Bias website to initiate an investigation. Hopefully that continues and STOP Bias does not end up stopping free speech instead.

CultureErika HaasComment