Today, as we all know, is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for love, mushy cards, chocolate, flowers, hearts, romantic dinners, and—harassment. Or at least that’s what many university administrators seem to think.
Take, for example, Stevens Institute of Technology, FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month school for December. Stevens bans “comments regarding a person’s attire, body or reputation” under its sexual harassment policy. One might wonder, then, why The Vagina Monologues, which includes segments on such topics as “what my vagina smells like,” is being performed there next week. Watch out for those “comments regarding a person’s…body”!
And what about another hallowed Valentine’s Day custom: informing one’s beloved that he or she is (as the case may be) handsome or pretty? I for one am glad I don’t go to Stevens—if so, I’d be in trouble later, because I imagine that after work today I will tell my girlfriend that she is wearing something nice today (hey, it’s a safe assumption). That would have to be considered one of those awful, illegal “comments regarding a person’s attire,” right? I guess I am a harasser.
But so, it seems, is anybody who gets a date at Stevens, since the same unbelievable policy also bans “propositions” and “offensive sexual flirtations.” (I imagine the latter applies to just about anyone who has ever attended a frat party, too.) And it certainly would not have spared one of my FIRE colleagues, who will remain nameless, after he “offended” his wife yesterday by asking her to have dinner at the Olive Garden tonight. Surely that was a “proposition” she didn’t like. Harasser!
FIRE sees vague and overbroad sexual harassment policies like Stevens’ all over the country. Unfortunately, the term “sexual harassment” is continually distorted to ban not just real harassment, but also offensive speech. It is a nationwide scandal, and as we pointed out recently, the latest hallmark of the problem is the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW’s) fatally flawed report on campus sexual harassment. The AAUW report outrageously included things like “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks” under its definition of harassment, resulting in the much-trumpeted (and ridiculous) claim that 62 percent of the students it surveyed have been sexually harassed. As Debra Saunders subsequently wrote in a nationally syndicated column, this abuse of the term threatens to trivialize real sexual harassment— and even incredibly serious issues like rape.
Sexual harassment is serious. The way university administrators go about writing policies, however, is both unserious and unwise. And such disregard for liberty threatens to endanger much more than Valentine’s Day fun.