Supreme Court Sidesteps Debate Over Free Speech on College Campuses

( — The United States Supreme Court avoided having to hear a legal argument involving groups known as “bias response teams,” which many citizens compare to censorship groups that aim to limit free speech. Bias response teams are utilized by various college campuses nationwide to investigate accusations of political bias on campus, raising concerns about colleges restricting students’ free speech.

The legal issue arose from a policy at Virginia Tech, that permitted students to speak to campus officials about bias present at the college’s campus, but due to Virginia Tech’s administration’s decision to remove the policy, the court doesn’t have to consider the free speech issue.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision to avoid determining whether or not bias response teams limit student’s free speech, multiple justices believe the court should have taken action. According to Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, the concept of bias response teams indicates that college campuses are restraining students’ abilities to speak about political issues, violating the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Thomas, in particular, criticized the Supreme Court’s failure to address bias response teams in a statement released after the court’s decision. Thomas claims that by allowing colleges to use bias response teams, the Supreme Court essentially permits campuses across the country to limit students’ free speech without the possibility of legal consequences against the college’s administrators. The primary concern regarding bias response teams is how campuses like Virginia Tech respond to allegations of political bias, as specific colleges use local police departments and campus administrators to actively investigate claims of bias from students.

Virginia Tech’s bias response team method included a panel of college officials and members of the college’s police department, who would determine whether or not a report of bias lacked merit. Virginia Tech officials claim the panel’s goal was to ensure that students on campus acted within the parameters of the First Amendment, but the policy prevented disciplinary action against students accused of biased behavior.

Virginia Tech ultimately removed the policy after a speech advocacy group known as Speech First sued the campus, preventing further legal challenges against the campus for using bias response teams. Speech First accused Virginia Tech officials of using campus police for censorship purposes but failed to have the policy removed in Virginia courts. After appealing to the United States Supreme Court, Virginia Tech ended bias response teams, making the issue “moot,” according to the majority of Supreme Court justices.

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