AAUW Sexual Harassment Report Is Fatally Flawed

January 26, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, January 26, 2006—The American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation released a report Tuesday claiming that 62 percent of students surveyed have been sexually harassed at college. The report’s definition of sexual harassment, however, includes large amounts of constitutionally protected expression, such as any unwanted “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.” This definition is so broad that the report’s conclusions are highly misleading and dangerous to free expression on campus.
 
“For all of FIRE’s existence, ‘harassment’ has been the most common accusation students and faculty members have abused to punish speech they simply dislike,” declared Greg Lukianoff, interim president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “Real harassment is a real problem, but the AAUW conflates harassment with any expression deemed sexually ‘offensive’ and thus endangers free expression while trivializing actual harassment.”
 
By defining harassment to include speech protected by the First Amendment, the report elevates personal feelings over fundamental freedoms. As its authors freely admit, “what may be a laughing matter for one student may be offensive to another.” Students living with such a definition of harassment would be at the mercy of every other student’s sensitivities.
 
The Department of Education defines sexual harassment as conduct “so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment.” The AAUW report admits that this legal definition of harassment differs from its own “intentionally broad” standard. If the report’s suggested “harassment-free campuses” used this broad standard, students’ First Amendment rights would be subordinated to the supposed “right” of students to be free from offense.
 
“If this report proves anything, it is that students are being grossly misinformed about what sexual harassment is,” said Lukianoff. “With millions of students allegedly believing they were ‘harassed’ by merely rude or bawdy speech, it is no wonder that colleges and universities are inundated with frivolous harassment claims and lawsuits. This report is actually evidence that harassment law and policies must be reformed to more clearly protect free speech rights.”
 
In addition, the report states that “the top reason that students gave for not reporting sexual harassment is that their experience was not serious or ‘not a big deal.’”
 
“If the recipient of a sexual joke or comment feels that the incident was insignificant, then there has been no harassment, period. That is part of the very definition of harassment under any reasonable standard,” stated Lukianoff. “This study is an important reminder to students and faculty who value their free speech rights that they must guard them vigilantly against those who would restrict liberty in the name of ‘politeness’ and ‘civility.’”
 
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across the United States can be viewed at thefire.org.
 
CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, Interim President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org