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Speech Code of the Month: Eastern Michigan University

By July 5, 2011

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for July 2011: Eastern Michigan University (EMU). EMU’s Student Conduct Code defines “sexual harassment” as

Conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive campus, educational or working environment for another person. This includes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, inappropriate sexual or gender-based activities, comments or gestures, or other forms of verbal or physical conduct or communications constituting sexual harassment. [Emphasis added.]

This policy’s prohibition on “inappropriate sexual or gender-based … comments” means that virtually any speech relating in any way to gender is subject to punishment if it offends a member of the campus community and EMU officials deem it “inappropriate.” Issues of sex and gender are frequently the subject of discussion and debate at a universityboth within and outside of the classroomand this broad restriction seriously endangers the kind of open debate that should define a university. A review of EMU’s course catalog reveals the danger of a policy like this at an institution that, through its academic program, encourages students to explore sensitive questions about sex and gender:

  • SOCL 344, “Sociology of Gender,” is described as an “Analysis of past, present and future sex roles; the changing roles of women and men, and the conflicts and consequences of these changes on marriage and family systems in the United States.”
  • HIST 325, “History of Sexuality,” presents “a topical approach to the role that sex and sexuality has played in American history; topics include the family, gender, interracial relations, the birth control movement, origins of the gay community, politics of abortion, and sexually transmitted infections.”
  • PSY 380, “Psychology of Sex II: Identity, Sex, and Gender,” is “an advanced study in the psychological aspects of human sexuality. It is intended to help students develop an increased awareness of how their various social identities (e.g., their sex, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, etc.) influence their understanding of sex, sexuality, and their behaviors in and attitudes about society.”

When “inappropriate” (as judged by whom?) sexual or gender-based comments can lead to charges of sexual harassment, how can students in these and other sex- and gender-related courses possibly express controversial or unpopular opinions on topics like abortion, birth control, and gender roles?

Examples from throughout the years demonstrate that members of college campus communities too often are offended by and seek to silence dissenting opinions on controversial issues. Last year, Duke University’s Women’s Center cancelled an event about motherhood because it was associated with a pro-life student group and because, according to a Women’s Center staff member, “We had a very strong reaction from students in general who use our space who said this was something that was upsetting and not OK. So based on that, we said, OK, we are going to respond to this and stop the program.” (After intervention from FIRE and a public outcry, the Women’s Center admitted its mistakes.) At William Paterson University, a religious Muslim student was charged with harassment after he referred to homosexuality as a “perversion” in a private response to a mass email he had received, which advertised a film about lesbian relationships. And when former Harvard University president Larry Summers suggested that differences in aptitude might be a factor in women’s underrepresentation at the highest levels of math and science, the University of California disinvited him from speaking at one of its campuses in the wake of a faculty petition stating that he “has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia.”

In Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989), a federal judge found the University of Michigan’s discriminatory harassment policy unconstitutional because, among other things, “Students of common understanding were necessarily forced to guess at whether a comment about a controversial issue would later be found to be sanctionable under the Policy.” Take a look back at the language of EMU’s policy and ask yourself if the same is not true. No idea or opinion should be off limits at a university, but at EMU, anything related to sex or gender that another person deems “inappropriate” is subject to punishment. For this reason, EMU is our July 2011 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in these issues, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, a network of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog, website, or Facebook profile and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

Schools: Eastern Michigan University