Former FIRE Intern Criticizes Columbia’s Speech Code and Bureaucracy

By on September 21, 2009

Former FIRE intern and Columbia student Noah Baron has another excellent post on the Columbia Spectator blog Commentariat (see the other here) about Columbia University’s egregiously repressive sexual harassment policies (see all of Columbia’s illiberal policies in our Spotlight database here). During his time at FIRE, Noah learned about FIRE’s work on speech codes and privately conducted his own research into Columbia’s policies. He discovered policies that are often repressive, at best hopelessly unclear, and enforced by an unresponsive bureaucracy. Noah writes:

I decided to do some research on my own to see what this was all about, only to discover that Columbia’s sexual harassment policies are nearly impossible to decipher — and that Columbia has different versions of its sexual harassment policy floating around throughout its website!

I tried getting in touch with Columbia administrators to clarify their sexual harassment and sexual assault policies. Originally, and perhaps naively, I had expected this to be a relatively straightforward affair. Yet, I was to [be] thoroughly disappointed.

First, he contacted Helen Arnold, the Manager of the Disciplinary Procedure for Sexual Assault, via e-mail. Given her title and the subject of his inquiry, she seemed a logical choice. He outlined the policies which he (and FIRE) find problematic. They are so egregious that they warrant an extensive quote from Noah’s blog entry:

According to the Disciplinary Procedure on Sexual Assault website ( defines "Sexual Assault" as:

"The presence of consent involves explicit communications and mutual approval for the act in which the parties are/were involved. A sexual encounter is considered consensual when individuals willingly and knowingly engage in sexual activity. The use of coercion in instances of sexual assault involves the use of pressure, manipulation, substances, and/or force. The absence of "no" is not a "yes"."

However, a different definition can be found on the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences website

"Columbia University’s policy defines sexual misconduct as
non-consensual, intentional physical conduct of a sexual nature, such as unwelcome physical contact with a person’s genitals, buttocks or breasts. Lack of consent may be inferred from the use of force, threat, physical intimidation, or advantage gained by the victim’s mental or physical incapacity or impairment of which the perpetrator was aware or should have been aware."

Lastly, the Health Services website
( defines sexual harassment as:

* Can be intentional or unintentional.
* Creates an intimidating or hostile environment.
* Interferes with the student’s well-being.
* Is often directed toward a peer or subordinate.
* Is intertwined with many forms of violence and oppression against women.
* Is one of the most underreported crimes due to fear of retaliation and feelings of shame or guilt. Yet surveys show that 20-70% of all women college students experience some form of sexual harassment during their four years in college.
* Are behaviors unwanted by the recipient.

Behaviors include
* Stalking
* Leering
* Comments about a person’s body
* Sexist jokes or cartoons
* Pressure for dates
* Sexually explicit gestures
* Hooting, whistling, lip-smacking, and animal sounds
* Sexual innuendoes
* Leaning over, invading a person’s space
* Unwelcome touching or hugging
* Love letters, obscene emails

(Emphasis added)

Then Noah writes,

I am curious as to why Columbia students — regardless of how intelligent we might be expected to be — can reasonably be assumed to be capable of reading the minds of other students as to what might or might not be welcome or unwelcome conduct.

He then asks Ms. Arnold how students can expect to be treated under the policies and which of the varying policies they could expect to be prosecuted under. As Noah explains,

While I don’t support totally eliminating sexual harassment as a punishable offense at Columbia, I certainly do think that Columbia has taken its policy far and beyond the scope of reasonability. Declaring that "comments" about someone’s body (could it be any more general?), "pressuring" someone for a date (yet failing to define "pressure"), "leaning over" into "a person’s space", and similar things are punishable makes us a laughingstock – and let’s not even get into the fact that pretty much everyone at Columbia has violated these policies at least once, even if we haven’t all been reported for it.

I mean, who hasn’t written a love letter, used profanity in an e-mail, suggested that someone else might be overweight or unhealthily skinny, or leaned over a friend to see what they were up to?

Unfortunately, Ms. Arnold only responded to say that his e-mail had been forwarded to Phung Tran, Communications Manager for Columbia Health Services. After receiving no initial response, Noah apparently contacted Ms. Tran twice before receiving a response. She insisted that they speak over the phone rather than e-mail. He says that during the conversation she evaded answering his questions and insisted that she wasn’t the "right person" to talk to. But, of course, she could not tell him who would be the right person to whom to direct his inquiries. Finally, they agreed that Noah would e-mail a list of questions that she would seek to answer. He did so, but:

I never received a response about why Columbia students enjoy fewer freedoms than our counterparts at public Universities — or why Columbia feels no need to clarify its own polices to its own students.

Considering his questions, the lack of answers from Columbia is damning.

* Why are Columbia’s various sex-crime related policies so difficult to locate? Couldn’t they be more centrally located and easy to find? Why isn’t the sexual harassment policy included in FACETS [Facts About Columbia Essential to Students]?

* Why are the policies for each of these found on different websites?

* I understand that the University is a large institution, but is it really responsible or acceptable for there to be multiple, contradictory or overlapping or generally otherwise conflicting policies on sexual harassment, assault, or "misconduct"? How can students be reasonably expected to comply with policies that the University has never truly clarified properly?

* Does a violation of the sexual harassment policy carry with it the possibility of disciplinary measures? If so, what measures? Why is this also not mentioned in FACETS?

* What is the difference between sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment? What are the punishments for each of these?

* Who were the last students brought up on such charges? What was the disciplinary process like for them? Were they afforded a public hearing? Were they allowed counsel? Were they permitted to present evidence in their favor? Were they permitted to confront their accuser?

* Do you think it is acceptable — especially in light of Columbia’s ostensible endorsement of and promise to respect the rights provided by First Amendment — for Columbia University to have rules which would be struck down by a court were it a public university?

* Could you please direct me to someone I could speak to about Columbia’s e-mail policies?

So Columbia University has sexual harassment policies on the books that can most charitably be described as incredibly vague and subjective. They require students to read the minds of their fellow students to decipher what is and isn’t acceptable. And no one in the Columbia bureaucracy seems to be able, or willing, to explain why there are conflicting policies and what protections, if any, Columbia students can expect from the university. Columbia owes its students some answers. As Noah wrote in a previous Commentariat post, it’s time to "tear down this speech code."

Schools: Columbia University