Cautions and tips for bias response systems
One mechanism that many campuses have adopted to respond to hateful incidents are bias response systems, which generally consist of an online system to report incidents of bias to an appointed committee as well as a protocol that allows each complaint to be acknowledged, tracked, and addressed in a timely manner. When done right, bias response systems can be useful mechanisms for responding to hateful speech or discrimination. But they have generated criticism for their potential to chill free expression by punishing speech that is disfavorable. To minimize that risk, bias response teams should have clearly defined roles that exclude the power to discipline individuals for speech alone.
Bias response teams should have plainly delineated roles. They can be effective for recording complaints, mediating disputes, educating on free speech protections, and supporting targeted individuals, but they should not have the power to police speech using punitive measures. Further, members of the team should be appointed in a neutral manner with set term limits, so as to avoid conflicts of interest with duties and roles of other university offices. Any office with the power to impose disciplinary measures, for example, should refrain from serving on a bias response team.
Concepts like bullying and bias can be defined in overly broad and vague ways, while concepts like discrimination and harassment have legal definitions that must be considered. To avoid the arbitrary enforcement of policies, strive to provide clear, standardized definitions that are consistent with the law.
Transparent processes can help ensure that bias response systems stay accountable, making them less likely to chill speech. They should also have mechanisms that apply when people feel they have been treated unfairly or when the bias response system has overstepped its boundaries.
Members of bias response teams must receive specialized training in legal definitions and institutional policies on free speech, discrimination, and harassment. Individuals in these roles need to understand that most speech is protected, though acts of violence and speech that poses an imminent threat are not.
Duke University’s bias response advisory committee