On Friday evening, Northwestern University finally cleared Professor Laura Kipnis of wrongdoing after a 72-day investigation into her public writing and comments about sexual politics on campus. The lengthy investigation was launched by the university’s Title IX Coordinator after two students filed complaints alleging that Kipnis’s essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussing already-public details about sexual harassment investigations and lawsuits at Northwestern constituted “retaliation” and “chilled” students’ willingness to report harassment.
As we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) detailed on Friday, Kipnis exposed the investigation and the university’s unfair treatment towards her in a second essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Northwestern soon faced withering criticism from media outlets including The Washington Post, Jezebel, Slate, and New York. That same evening, Northwestern’s attorneys informed Kipnis that they had concluded that Kipnis did not commit any wrongdoing. Kipnis still faces allegations of misconduct under the faculty handbook.
While FIRE is pleased that Professor Kipnis was eventually vindicated in the Title IX investigation, the lengthy investigation is cause for serious concern. Universities must, of course, take allegations of sex-based discrimination seriously. But Title IX does not excuse administrators from their responsibility to exercise good judgment and common sense. There is simply no conceivable way in which an essay discussing publicly available (and indeed, widely discussed) information could constitute a violation of Title IX. Any administrator qualified to hold a position at a major research university should have been able to reach this conclusion after reading the complaints, and should have disposed of them accordingly—rather than investing considerable time and resources better spent addressing actual Title IX violations.
Unfortunately, Northwestern is only the latest example in a trend reaching back more than a decade. In a 2003 piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, FIRE’s co-founder Harvey Silverglate and then-Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff warned of the abuse of campus harassment policies. In the years since, colleges and universities have often overreacted to harassment allegations and then excused their failure in judgment by claiming that federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX made them do it. For example, beginning in 2013, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ student newspaper was subjected to a 10-month Title IX investigation after publishing two benign articles that a professor alleged constituted sexual harassment. And in recent years, at least three professors have found themselves facing investigation—or worse—for wholly germane classroom speech related to sex, and seen their academic freedom rights ignored. In a 2013 Huffington Post article, FIRE’s Azhar Majeed analyzed the federal government’s role in encouraging these abuses.
The transmogrification of Title IX into an all-purpose excuse for knee-jerk overreactions to complaints about speech—sometimes only tangentially related to sex—is an unacceptable trend that endangers freedom of expression and undermines the purpose of higher education. That merely discussing issues related to sex or publicly available information could justify a two and a half month investigation in any administrator’s mind shows the extent to which the language and purpose of Title IX has been corrupted.
To emphasize the need to reverse this trend, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff will testify tomorrow about these and other threats to campus free speech and academic freedom in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Schools: Northwestern University