by Walter Olson
Cato at Liberty
My colleague Andrew Coulson has already briefly noted this story, but its constitutional and policy implications — which go well beyond the higher education context — merit a more detailed look.
For more than two years civil rights enforcers at the federal Department of Education and Department of Justice have been readying a crackdown on colleges and universities that they view as excessively lax, lenient, or observant of due process toward the accused in charges of unwelcome sexual conduct. Now, in a letter and resolution agreement sent to administrators at the University of Montana, the enforcers finally seem to have tipped their hand as to how far they’re prepared to go. And the answer is: really, really far.
- The “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” that colleges and universities must discipline is to include “verbal conduct,” better known as “speech.”
- To be subject to discipline, speech or conduct won’t have to be objectively offensive to a reasonable person, merely subjectively so to the particular complainant.
- Disciplinable speech or conduct also won’t have to be severe or pervasive enough to do actual damage to a complainant’s environment for learning or employment or research, a departure from the standard that courts have developed for liability in areas like workplace hostile-environment law. This ensures there will be more and tougher discipline handed out for offenses such as, say, posting desk photos of beach-clad spouses or playing a “shock jock” show on a dorm radio.
- The feds say universities are not just free, but affirmatively obliged, to take “protective” action against future harassment — kicking an accused student out of a class might be one such step — before affording a hearing at which that person might defend himself or herself.
Among those outraged: FIRE, or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which calls the development a “shocking affront” to the Constitution’s First Amendment; CEI’s Hans Bader (Washington is now demanding that colleges institute speech codes much broader than many already struck down as overbroad by federal courts), and prominent education blogger Joanne Jacobs (rule could stifle education about sexuality as well as both sides of campus debates on related issues).
FIRE president Greg Lukianoff says the new speech prohibitions are “so broad that virtually every student will regularly violate them… it is time for colleges and the public to push back.”