The Tyranny of Hurt Feelings

May 17, 2011

Call it testosterone poisoning: A group of fraternity pledges at Yale, blindfolded and led in a line, each with his hands on the shoulders of the boy in front of him (the Yalie bunny hop?), were paraded around campus. They shouted vile and puerile slogans including “No means yes, yes means anal” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I f— dead women.”

“It makes you want to slap those kids,” laments Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Idiotic behavior like that of Delta Kappa Epsilon makes his job — defending free speech and common sense in the Orwellian universe of the American academy — that much more difficult.

A group of Yale women and alumnae have filed a Title IX complaint against the university, prompting the self-described “lonely civil libertarian feminist,” Wendy Kaminer, to lament that women are acting like helpless females. “What accounts,” she asks in The Atlantic, “for such feminine timidity, this instinctive unwillingness or inability to talk or taunt back, without seeking the protection of university or government bureaucrats?”

But the bureaucrats are hard at work — even if it means compromising the due-process rights of the accused. In fact, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education has pretty well mandated that the rights of the accused be downgraded.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter dated April 4, 2011, the Office of Civil Rights informed all recipients of federal funds that when adjudicating accusations of sexual harassment or sexual violence, (the two are constantly conflated, as if the latter were merely a more extreme form of the former), universities must reduce the burden of proof from “clear and convincing” evidence to “preponderance of the evidence,” or 50.01 percent likelihood that the offense took place.

American law has traditionally afforded stricter standards of proof when the stakes for the accused are high. In criminal cases, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The OCR claims — bizarrely — that sexual-harassment cases are like claims for money damages. Hardly. The stakes for the accused in a campus disciplinary hearing concerning sexual harassment or sexual violence could scarcely be higher. The student’s reputation, education, and even liberty are at risk.

Throughout the letter, as Kaminer notes, the Obama administration, through the OCR, assumes the guilt of the accused, just as the Duke faculty presumed the guilt of the lacrosse players. No concern is spared for the possibly falsely accused student.

The OCR’s demand is consistent with two decades of “speech codes” and sexual harassment standards at American universities that seek to micromanage speech and thought. Greg Lukianoff believes that students are being trained at colleges to “unlearn liberty.” As the definition of what constitutes “harassment” expands, the First Amendment freedoms Americans take for granted contract. It’s a tyranny of protected feelings extending into ever more ridiculous realms.

A student at the University of New Hampshire was found guilty of harassment because he posted flyers in his dorm jokingly suggesting that female students who wanted to lose weight take the stairs instead of the elevators. A student at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis was found guilty of thought crime. He was seen reading Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan (a book that celebrated the Klan’s defeat, by the way) and was convicted of racial harassment. A Muslim student at William Paterson University was charged with sexual harassment after a comment he made in an email to a professor concerning a lesbian-themed movie.

At Duke, university regulations specify that “sexual misconduct” may be determined by a number of factors, including “real or perceived power differentials between individuals” which may create an “unintentional atmosphere of coercion.” The University of California’s sexual harassment “info sheet” defines sexual harassment as, among other things, “Sexual innuendoes and comments about your clothing, body or sexual activities . . . Suggestive or insulting sounds (i.e.: cat calls, whistles, etc.: hostile environment); Humor and jokes about sex in general that make someone feel uncomfortable or that they did not consent to . . . ” So if you tell me a joke that makes me feel uncomfortable, you are guilty of sexual harassment.

By tossing aside nearly all standards of sexual conduct 40-odd years ago, liberals abetted the free-for-all they are now so feverishly trying to check. That’s condign retribution. But in the process they are endangering freedom of speech and thought — and in the some cases even inviting gross miscarriages of justice.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Schools: Yale University