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FIRE’s Samantha Harris: Title IX Retaliation Complaints Are Silencing Campus Speech

By November 10, 2015

Today’s opinion section of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star features an op-ed by Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of policy research, describing how the abuse of Title IX retaliation complaints is hurting free speech on campus.

Sam describes a federal Title IX retaliation complaint filed against the University of Mary Washington (UMW) after UMW President Richard Hurley publicly denied allegations that UMW had failed to appropriately address hostile posts on the social media application Yik Yak. Last month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced it would be investigating the complaint.

Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis also found herself facing allegations of retaliation for speaking publicly about her university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. In that case, Kipnis wrote a piece on campus sexual politics for The Chronicle of Higher Education that referenced an ongoing sexual harassment case at Northwestern. Even though her essay only included public information about the sexual harassment case, students filed a retaliation complaint against her with the university for mentioning it.

As Sam points out, Hurley’s speech falls far short of the legal definition of retaliation, but these investigations themselves chill speech:

According to OCR documents, actual retaliation involves intimidation, threats or coercion. Why, then, are individuals and institutions being accused of retaliation for simply mentioning public cases or, worse yet, for attempting to defend their reputations against publicized allegations of wrongdoing?

This misuse of retaliation claims has profound implications for freedom of speech. If simply speaking up in defense of oneself or others on matters pertaining to sex discrimination constitutes retaliation under Title IX, the law amounts to nothing less than a gag order on students, faculty and administrators.

Read Sam’s full column at fredericksburg.com.

Schools: University of Mary Washington