In May, a new nonprofit group called Speech First sued the University of Michigan in federal court over its speech code, which it claims has a “chilling effect” on young Trump supporters.
Speech First wants the university to ban any investigation into campus harassment, bullying, and “bias-related misconduct.” It argues that these terms are defined so broadly that they restrict the free speech of campus conservatives. The university’s speech code, the group contends, belongs in “communist China.”
The group also wants Michigan to prevent its “Bias Response Teams,” made up of staff who report and respond to discrimination claims such as white-supremacist leafleting and racist graffiti, from doing their job. The “mere threat of being investigated” by the teams, the organization says, causes students “to err on the side of caution before expressing an opinion that could cause someone to take offense.”
“What if students who wanted to stand up for free speech on campus were supported by like-minded students from all over the country?” the organization asks on its website.
From statements like this one, it’s easy to assume Speech First is a grassroots, student-led organization. It calls itself an “association of students, parents, faculty, alumni, and concerned citizens from across the country who’ve had enough, and who want to fight back.” Inside Higher Ed calls it a “watchdog group.” The New York Times calls it a “student group.”
But Speech First looks like something else: a highly professional astro-turfing campaign, with a board of former Bush administration lawyers and longtime affiliates of the Koch family. The group is new to the campus culture wars: It incorporated in December and launched in February. But it has already received endorsements from the Department of Justice, which filed a statement of interest supporting Speech First in the Michigan case, stating in a subsequent press release that “freedom of speech and expression on the American campus are under attack.”
In a phone interview last month, Speech First President Nicole Neily said no students were involved in founding the group. She said that its $5 lifetime membership dues—a requirement for the group to take up a student’s case in court—make up a “negligible part” of its funding, which mainly comes from undisclosed backers.