University clarifies definitions of harassment, bullying


The University of Michigan has clarified and standardized the definitions of bullying and harassing, both of which are prohibited under the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

In a message to colleagues in the Division of Student Life and to student leaders, Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper says the “formal and authoritative” definitions were posted online Monday.

The statement begins with a strong commitment to “freedom of expression,” noting that the university’s “long tradition of student activism and … freedom of expression … includes voicing unpopular views and dissent.”

“The revised definitions more precisely and accurately reflect the commitment to freedom of expression that has always been expressed in the statement itself,” Harper notes.

The definitions are being clarified as U-M prepares to respond to a lawsuit from Speech First Inc. challenging the university’s policy against harassment and bullying, and the university’s Bias Response Team as infringing on the constitutional free speech rights of students.

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the university already was reviewing its websites and policies to ensure they were consistent with First Amendment principles. After the lawsuit was filed May 8, that review was accelerated.

The university streamlined the definitions by eliminating the dictionary definitions, leaving only the definitions of “harassing” and “bullying” that are drawn from state law in Michigan.

At the same time, the university revised the statutory language to narrow the potential scope of what is prohibited, and to add additional safeguards for free speech. The new U-M definitions are:

Bullying: Any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, directed toward a person that is intended to cause or that a reasonable person would know is likely to cause, and that actually causes, physical harm or substantial emotional distress and thereby adversely affects the ability of another person to participate in or benefit from the university’s educational programs or activities. Bullying does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.

Harassing: Conduct directed toward a person that includes repeated or continuing unconsented contact that would cause a reasonable individual to suffer substantial emotional distress and that actually causes the person to suffer substantial emotional distress. Harassing does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.

The Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities is the principal document that sets forth expectations for student behavior outside of students’ academic work. The statement is intended to maintain a campus climate that supports learning for all students.


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