Feds rooting out 'unwelcome speech' on campus: But what is that?
The failure of the University of Montana to respond adequately to sexual assault allegations has led to a broadening of how the federal government defines verbal harassment. Free speech advocates worry that the new policy will chill the right to speak freely on campus.
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The new federal rule “is part of a decades-long effort by anti-‘hate speech’ professors, students, activists and administrators to classify any offensive speech as harassment unprotected by the First Amendment,” writes Greg Lukianoff, author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” in the Wall Street Journal. “Such speech codes reached their height in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were defeated in federal and state court and came in for public ridicule. Despite these setbacks, harassment-based speech codes have become the de facto rule.”Skip to next paragraph
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The new sexual harassment blueprint, however, is necessary to force colleges to deal with a serious and pervasive problem that continues to seriously violate women’s civil rights, federal officials and civil rights groups maintain.
A recent investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity found that “students deemed ‘responsible’ for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts.”
“Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down,” the report asserts. “For them, the trauma of assault can be compounded by a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action. Many times, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate.”
The Department of Education probe of the University of Montana’s handling of rape allegations against football players found problems with both the university’s sex harassment policy and its implementation. Federal officials focused on police reports, for example, that suggested that one alleged victim simply “regretted sex” and that another one didn’t seem sufficiently upset, and smelled of alcohol.
Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights with the Education Department, said the evidence showed sex harassment at the college violated civil rights law because the acts interfered with the ability of women to benefit from school programs.
"What is noteworthy about this announcement today is not the problems our investigation found at the university, but a shared commitment to the equality of women students and their safety," Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement.
The broadened definition of sexual harassment enters the public debate two years after the Department of Education’s civil rights office and the Department of Justice tweaked sexual assault policy by lowering the evidentiary requirements for determinations of guilt. Instead of victims having to lay out “clear and convincing evidence” of assault or harassment, a “preponderance of evidence” is all that’s now necessary to determine that sexual assault or harassment took place.
Moreover, what’s troubling to some critics is that the idea of subjectively silencing “unwelcome speech” about sex may seep into other corners of campus life, even going so far as to poison debates about personal ideology and politics.
“I doubt [the new sexual harassment policy] is intended to be fairly enforced,” writes civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer on Atlantic.com. “I doubt federal officials want or expect it to be used against sex educators, advocates of reproductive choice, anti-porn feminists, or gay rights advocates, if their speech of a sexual nature is ‘unwelcome’ by religious conservatives.”
“When people demand censorship of ‘unwelcome’ speech, they’re usually demanding censorship of speech that they find unwelcome,” Ms. Kaminer writes. “They usually seek to silence their political or ideological opponents, not their friends – all in the name of some greater good.”
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