At Bryn Mawr, Another Speech Code of the Month is Reformed

July 8, 2010

FIRE is pleased to announce that Bryn Mawr College has reformed its sexual harassment policy, which had been named our Speech Code of the Month for May 2010.

FIRE wrote Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe on June 2 to voice our concerns about the policy, which prohibited "offensive or degrading remarks" and listed "[n]egative or offensive comments, jokes or suggestions about another employee’s gender or sexuality, ethnicity or religion" as "specific examples of behavior that are inappropriate." Samantha noted here on The Torch that the policy left students subject to discipline simply for "expressing their opinions on a wide range of topics that should be discussed openly at an institution like Bryn Mawr." Samantha wrote:

To take just one example, many people have recently expressed strong feelings about the Catholic Church’s response to the priest sex abuse scandal. If such remarks offended a Catholic student at Bryn Mawr, the student or faculty member who made them could be charged with harassment for making negative comments about a particular religion. The suppression of controversial speech is shameful at a college which claims that a "climate of open and vigorous debate" is "essential to its educational mission." One cannot have "open and vigorous debate" when "negative comments" are punishable.

Our letter to McAuliffe asked that Bryn Mawr revise the policy to render it consistent with Bryn Mawr’s robust promises of freedom of expression, and to "clarify to students and administrators at the college that protected expression may never and will never be investigated or punished."

Happily, Bryn Mawr has done just that. On June 17, McAuliffe informed FIRE in a letter that the policy had been revised "to make [the] language as clear and specific as possible." The new policy reads:

Sexual harassment can include verbal behavior such as unwanted sexual comments, suggestions, jokes or pressure for sexual favors; nonverbal behavior such as suggestive looks or leering; and physical behavior such as pats, where such behaviors are severe, offensive, and occur repeatedly unless a single instance is so severe that it warrants immediate action.

Some specific examples of behaviors that are inappropriate include:

  • Continuous and repeated sexual slurs or sexual innuendoes;
  • offensive and repeated risqué jokes or kidding about sex or gender-specific traits; 
  • repeated unsolicited propositions for dates and/or sexual relations.

This policy is a vast improvement from its predecessor, making clear that while true harassment is appropriately subject to punishment, speech protected by the First Amendment in
society at large is likewise protected at Bryn Mawr. FIRE thanks McAuliffe for her leadership and salutes Bryn Mawr for its admirable attention to the importance of freedom of expression on campus. We look forward to being on Bryn Mawr’s campus next week for our third annual Campus Freedom Network conference!

Schools:  Bryn Mawr College