PA Lawmaker Hopes to Ban Campus Bias Response Teams
HARRISBURG – The Center Square is reporting… College campuses in recent years have created “bias response teams” to respond to student concerns over bias or controversial speech, with hundreds of them established nationwide. However, free speech advocates have challenged the legitimacy of the teams, fearing that they can chill or limit constitutionally protected speech. If a proposed bill becomes law, a number of universities across the state will have to shutter their bias response teams. Sponsored by Rep. Joseph D’Orsie, R-York, House Bill 179 would prohibit bias response teams and limit “unreasonably high security fees” for controversial speakers – and allow someone whose free speech rights are violated to bring legal action against a college.
“Free speech is a nonpartisan thing,” D’Orsie said. “My intention is that the First Amendment is protected and the pillar of free speech that has propelled our nation, that makes our nation unique, makes our state unique, that that is just protected.” D’Orsie noted that complaints sent to bias response teams can be anonymous, which makes the reporting system liable to be abused. “These reporting systems are anonymous, so a student can just anonymously report something that they deem is ‘bias,’ which has come to be a very ambiguous term,” D’Orsie said. “The way it should be in school, in college, in university, is we should debate or discuss divergent views and disagreements, not anonymously just tattletale … more so than not, they’re just disagreements.”
D’Orsie’s bill would apply to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, community colleges, and state-related institutions, as well as rural regional colleges, the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. “A primary mission of higher education is to facilitate the free exchange of ideas, and that involves protecting the right to freedom of speech which may include offensive and hurtful language and controversial ideas,” said Kevin Hensil, PASSHE’s director of media relations. “PASSHE is committed to upholding free speech and strives to provide campus environments that value all people, where everyone is treated with respect, and all students, faculty, staff and community members feel they belong.”
If D’Orsie’s bill gets passed, some Pennsylvania colleges would have to reform themselves to stay within the law. A 2022 report by the pro-speech group Speech First listed 15 Pennsylvania PASSHE or state-related universities with bias response teams and warned that the teams “actively chill student speech through fear and intimidation.” At Shippensburg University, for example, the purpose of its Community Response Team is to “review reports involving conduct or expressions that impact students, faculty, and employees, disrupt the university’s mission of creating an inclusive community where everyone feels a sense of belonging, and to recommend an appropriate response to such conduct or expression of hate and intolerance and discrimination.”