‘Los Angeles Times’ to Feds: Respect Campus Speech

By June 5, 2013

An editorial published in today’s Los Angeles Times calls on the Departments of Justice and Education to respect free speech on campus. The editorial asks the Departments to clarify their "blueprint," issued last month, that requires an expanded definition of sexual harassment and restricts speech protected by the First Amendment. The Times’ editorial board writes: "Sexual harassment on campus is a serious problem, but it can be addressed without abridging free speech."

The "blueprint" the editorial refers to is, of course, the May 9 findings letter and resolution agreement authored by the Departments and concluding their investigation into the University of Montana’s practices regarding sexual assault. The Departments proclaimed the letter and resolution agreement to be "a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country." FIRE has covered the blueprint’s ramifications for campus speech extensively since its issuance.

In criticizing the federal blueprint—which the Times politely notes isn’t "a model of clarity"—the editorial points out the blueprint’s prohibition against "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including "verbal conduct" (i.e., speech). The editors write that the blueprint suggests "that a college or university must punish such ‘verbal conduct’ if even a single, arguably oversensitive, person found it offensive or ‘unwelcome.’" 

The editors also note the Departments’ response last week to criticisms of the blueprint, but state that the response left "questions unresolved" relating to its implications for free expression on campus, and that "[t]hose matters need to be addressed in a new ‘blueprint’ that is both clearer and more sensitive to the 1st Amendment than the first effort." 

Citing FIRE’s arguments against the blueprint’s threat to freedom of speech, the editors highlight the high stakes:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that this definition would potentially allow colleges to punish "any expression related to sexual topics that offends any person," from a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" to a classroom lecture on Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita" to a "sexually themed joke overheard by any person who finds that joke offensive for any reason." The group also argued that the new definition contradicted a 2003 advisory by the Department of Education that harassment "must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive." That earlier qualification echoed court decisions interpreting the free-speech protections of the 1st Amendment.

FIRE thanks the Los Angeles Times for their attention to the serious threat to student and faculty speech presented by the federal government’s striking overreach. Please pick up a copy of today’s Los Angeles Times to read the entire editorial, or visit the paper’s website

Cases: Departments of Education and Justice: National “Blueprint” for Unconstitutional Speech Codes