Chico State Newspaper Covers Speech Code Questions

By on October 17, 2012

FIRE’s Azhar Majeed was quoted in California State University–Chico student newspaper The Orion talking about Chico State’s "red light" speech codes. An excerpt:

Chico State also received a red light grade for its sexual harassment policy, which prohibits "subtly demeaning behavior, including sexist jokes and assumptions," without defining these vague terms at all, Majeed said.

Because "subtly demeaning behavior" is not well defined, students are likely to censor themselves rather than risk punishment, which could put a damper on free speech, he said. Additionally, sexist jokes are almost always constitutionally protected speech.

One shudders to think of how Chico State officials would determine what behavior is "subtly demeaning" enough to be punished, or whether someone’s "assumptions" are sexist. The policy is actually worse than that, though. Read it, if you can believe it:

Most sexual harassment is far less obvious than physical assault. Outright propositions or threats demanding sexual activity in exchange for favors (such as a recommendation for a favorable personnel review), subtly demeaning behavior (including sexist jokes and assumptions), and unwelcome physical gestures like leering, brushing up against you, squeezing, and pinching are all forms of sexual harassment.

While it may be unpleasant when it happens to you, "leering" is simply making a facial expression and looking at someone. Not only is it not by itself sexual harassment, but even if it were, it’s hard to imagine a situation where someone charged by a campus tribunal for sexual harassment via "leering" would even be able to mount a defense. And how would the tribunal determine what constitutes a leer versus a smile, smirk, wink, and so forth? Let’s hope this article helps to bring Chico State students’ attention to a policy that’s in dire need of reform.