‘Harassment’ rules threaten free speech

“Overly broad harassment codes remain the weapon of choice on campus to punish speech that administrators dislike,” writes Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in the Washington Post op-ed.

In a decade fighting campus censorship, I have seen harassment defined as expressions as mild as “inappropriately directed laughter” and used to police students for references to a student government candidate as a “jerk and a fool” (at the University of Central Florida in 2006) and a factually verifiable if unflattering piece on Islamic extremism in a conservative student magazine (at Tufts University in 2007). Other examples abound. Worryingly, such broad codes and heavy-handed enforcement are teaching a generation of students that it may be safer to keep their mouths shut when important or controversial issues arise. Such illiberal lessons on how to live in a free society are poison to freewheeling debate and thought experimentation and, therefore, to the innovative thinking that both higher education and our democracy need.

In April, the Office of Civil Rights told colleges to use “the lowest possible standard of evidence” in sexual harassment and assault cases, Lukianoff writes. “The letter makes no mention of the First Amendment or free speech.”

In the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court defined harassment as discriminatory conduct, directed at an individual, that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that “victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” FIRE and other groups want OCR to adopt the Davis definition of harassment.


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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Harrasment can be “offensive”, “disturbing” “frightening”. When David Horowitz was offering to speak against reparations on campus, one black prof said he’d had several students come to his office in complete emotional collapse.
    Now. Let’s presume against likelihood that the prof wasn’t lying. It means the kids had figured out how to game the system. Pretend to be all broken up. Presto. The other side has to shut up.
    Or, more likely, the prof has figured it out and doesn’t have to bother recruiting and rehearsing a few cooperative students.
    But he may have one or two on the bench in case he’s challenged.
    IOW, feigned offense is a useful and successful tactic.