New Changes To University Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy Raises Concern About Free Speech Rights

| by Jonathan Wolfe
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Some new sexual harassment policy changes may be coming soon to all federally funded U.S. universities.

As noted by The Blaze, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education recently sent a letter to the University of Montana regarding the school’s much talked about sexual harassment scandal. For those that haven't been keeping track: The school is currently under fire for allegedly covering up sexual harassment offenses committed by football players.

The letter presents several policy updates that will soon “serve as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” One policy revision that some are worried about is an increased focus on “verbal conduct” that is deemed harassment.

The letter rejects the previous requirement that all sexual harassment claims must be seen as “objectively offensive.” Since 2003, the Department of Education’s policies had included this soon-defunct standard.

While one would hope this new policy won’t be abused, there is the possibility that a very subjective interpretation of someone’s speech or conduct could now result in a sexual harassment charge.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about his concerns with the new policy.

“An unsuccessful request for a date, or even assigning a potentially offensive book like 'Lolita' could now be construed as harassment,” he says.

Lukianoff argues that the updates to sexual harassment policy are unnecessary, and that the Supreme Court already gave schools an efficient system for categorizing harassment in the 1999 Davis. Vs. Monroe County Board of Education case. In the case, the court labeled harassment as a targeted pattern of serious and ongoing discriminatory behavior.

Lukianoff thinks the policy updates may be more about risk-prevention than victim protection. Universities want to avoid the cost of sexual harassment investigations, and the cases, as the University of Montana is finding out, often bring unwanted media coverage to a school.

So what should schools do about the new policy? Luikanoff say’s they need to fight back. Citing several cases where professors were charged with harassment for things that didn’t seem particularly offensive, Luikanoff says schools must reclaim their ground as places where thoughts can be freely spoken.

What do you think? Is Luikanoff over-reacting to a simply policy update or is he on to something here?

You can read the rest of his Wall Street Journal post here

Sources: Wall Street Journal, The Blaze