Joined by a Broad Coalition, FIRE Urges Departments of Education and Justice to Protect Campus Speech, Retract Controversial ‘Blueprint’

April 12, 2013

WASHINGTON, July 16, 2013—In an open letter sent today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a broad coalition of organizations and individuals urged the Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to retract a controversial “blueprint” for campus sexual harassment policies that threatens student and faculty rights.

FIRE has led national criticism of the May 9 settlement reached by ED and DOJ with the University of Montana (UMT), a settlement that was proclaimed by the Departments to be a “blueprint” for how colleges across the country must handle sexual misconduct allegations.

The blueprint mandates a shockingly broad definition of sexual harassment—“any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct”—and rejects the inclusion of a “reasonable person” standard, endangering academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus. The blueprint also requires university employees to report protected speech for mandatory investigation, allows for punishment before the completion of an investigation, and instructs UMT to keep records of the names of all students and faculty accused of “sexual harassment,” even if no wrongdoing is found.

FIRE is joined in signing today’s letter by 16 organizations and 11 distinguished civil libertarians, attorneys, and academics. The complete list of signatories is available below.

“The Departments of Justice and Education have redefined harassment so broadly as to render potentially every student and faculty member a harasser. The new definition is an affront to the First Amendment, to academic freedom, and to common sense,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “FIRE is proud to join with organizations and individuals across the political spectrum, both on campus and off, to ask the government to retract its unconstitutional national campus speech code.”

FIRE’s open letter recognizes that colleges and universities “have a moral and legal obligation to address and prohibit sexual misconduct” but states that “institutions need not—and must not—sacrifice the civil liberties of their students and faculty members to do so.” The letter’s signatories “ask that the Departments of Justice and Education issue a swift and detailed retraction and clarification to every college and university receiving federal funding.”

Today’s open letter follows two months of criticism and concern about the blueprint’s provisions.

On June 26, Arizona Senator John McCain sent a letter to the Department of Justice expressing alarm about the blueprint’s threat to student and faculty speech rights, requesting a response by Wednesday, July 17. The Alliance Defending Freedom and several other organizations sent an open letter to ED and DOJ in June, noting that enforcing the blueprint’s broad definition will amount to an “enormous, and unbridled, administrative burden.” The American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Women in the Academic Profession also sent a letter to the Departments last month, noting that it is “deeply concerned” about the blueprint’s threat to academic freedom.

Commentators nationwide have criticized the blueprint in The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and many other outlets, including a staff editorial in the Los Angeles Times.

“The Departments of Education and Justice must not ignore the deep concerns voiced by students, faculty, administrators, trustees, civil liberties organizations, and citizens from across the political spectrum about the blueprint’s threat to campus expression,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “The U.S. Supreme Court has long made clear that protecting free speech on campus is essential to the health of our democracy. In that spirit, we ask the federal government to correct its mistake by retracting the blueprint immediately.”

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 America can be viewed at thefire.org.