Adding to the long list of those concerned about the new mandate for speech codes issued on May 9 by the federal Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Education (ED) is the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Women. AAUP’s letter to the Departments praises their desire to create a "more equitable campus environment for women" but expresses deep concern with their redefinition of sexual harassment, which "eliminates the critical standard of ‘reasonable speech,’ and, in so doing, may pose a threat to academic freedom in the classroom."
Appropriately, the letter focuses on the adverse effects this is likely to have on faculty members, giving examples of controversial issues that have arisen in the course of their gender studies classes. For example, "[a]fter seeing a film on African culture during a class on African literature, students discuss attitudes towards breast-feeding and breasts." The AAUP correctly points out that "[u]nder the proposed redefinition of sexual harassment, each of these classroom topics, because they might offend student sensibilities, or create discomfort, could be construed as ‘verbal conduct of a sexual nature’ and thus be considered contributory to the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ in the classroom."
FIRE has made the same points, but perhaps the Departments will pay more attention when they are voiced by professors. We can hope so, anyway—the AAUP wrote twice (including one letter from the Committee on Women) to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) after the April 4, 2011, "Dear Colleague" letter put at grave risk the rights of students and faculty members accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment (examples of which may now include the aforementioned breast-feeding discussion). Its letters were ignored, as were FIRE’s. Thankfully, the growing chorus of criticism about the blueprint has already forced OCR to respond to widespread concerns about its latest offense against academic freedom, free speech, and common sense, even if that response was faulty and insufficient.
We urge faculty nationwide to join FIRE and the AAUP in standing up for academic freedom. Write OCR directly and demand that it retract its mandate for speech codes immediately.