Middlebury College Administration Violates Its Own Speech Code

By on February 7, 2011

According to Middlebury College’s Anti-Harassment Policy, prohibited harassment may include the use of "stereotypes," "circulation of written or visual materials," "taunts on manner of speech, and negative reference to customs" on the basis of, among other things, "place of birth, ancestry, ethnicity" and "national origin."

What, then, can we make of Middlebury’s new video campaign aimed at ending dishware theft on campus? The campaign, which was profiled last week by The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a series of videos featuring the fictional "Aunt Des," described by the Chronicle as "a redheaded, acrylic-nailed caricature of a Greek-American New Jerseyite who’s hell-bent on recovering the dishes." This description is borne out by the videos (where she speaks in a stereotypical New Jersey accent interspersed with the occasional Greek word) and on her Facebook page, where her interests include nail polish and the bouzouki, a Greek instrument. 

The character of Aunt Des is played by Maria Theresa Stadtmueller, a former stand-up comedian, who "drew inspiration for the character from her real-life Aunt Despina." While this is a common form of satire that can often bridge cultural gaps, it is beyond question that the "Aunt Des" videos stereotypein circulated written and visual materialsGreek-Americans and make fun of their manner of speech and customs. In other words, the videos are a potential violation of Middlebury’s Anti-Harassment Policy, under which place of birth, ancestry, ethnicity, and national origin are all protected categories.

Now, we are a free-speech organization, so the point of this post is in no way to condemn the Middlebury administration for putting out these videos. Middlebury promises to protect free speech, and these videos are unquestionably protected speech that, outside the bounds of campus, would be completely protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the intent of this post is to point out that broadly worded harassment policies like Middlebury’s encompass so much protected speech that they cannot possibly be enforced across the board, leaving administrators with complete discretion to decide what to punish. For example, if the Aunt Des videos had been put out by a student or student group, and Aunt Des had been Jewish or Mexican rather than Greek, do you think we might have a different situation on our hands?

Middlebury’s policy is so broad that, by its plain language, a great deal of satire and parody might be grounds for a harassment charge. Perhaps it is time for Middlebury, where students are supposed to "enjoy the same rights of petition and freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly that other citizens enjoy," to re-think that policy.

Schools: Middlebury College