FIRE hopes readers are hungry for more news about problematic Title IX training courses, because professors and graduate assistants at Marquette University in Wisconsin are evidently required to complete a course that grossly misstates what kind of expression is acceptable in the university workplace.
Campus Reform and Marquette Warrior, a blog run by Marquette political science professor John McAdams, both have posted screen captures and information on the course, which is designed to inform staff, including faculty members, about sexual harassment and sexual violence. McAdams notes on his blog that the course starts off by stating that unlawful harassment must relate to a protected class, be unwelcome and objectively offensive, and be severe or pervasive. This formulation does a good job of tracking the law on hostile environment harassment in the workplace (which, importantly for students’ free speech rights, is distinct from the standard for hostile environment harassment between students).
But subsequent slides in the module indicate that even clearly protected speech—speech that is not objectively offensive, not unwelcome, or not related to protected classes—may be considered “harassment.”
Perhaps the most egregious example from the module is a slide about hypothetical peers Becky and Maria, who “have been talking about their opposition to same-sex marriage.” Hans overhears the conversations, is offended, and reports the two for harassment. Hans’s action is condoned in the module.
Let’s take a step back for a moment to better appreciate the ridiculousness of this concept. Marquette University is a private school and therefore not legally bound by the First Amendment. However, Marquette’s advertised commitment to free expression in its student handbook is broad enough to suggest that all members of the community will enjoy unfettered discussion:
It is clearly inevitable, and indeed essential, that the spirit of inquiry and challenge that the university seeks to encourage will produce many conflicts of ideas, opinions and proposals for action.
Threatening punishment for a particular viewpoint on an issue of the day is hardly reflective of this statement.
Further, Marquette is a Catholic school. As McAdams points out, the module’s instructions mean that “merely endorsing Church teaching in a university setting can be harassment.”
And opposition to gay marriage isn’t the only opinion that could get Marquette professors in trouble. McAdams also posted a slide addressing an anti-war poster one might hang in his or her office, which says, “Following orders is no excuse,” and depicts the word “war” in a red circle with a slash through it. McAdams explains Marquette’s logic:
An anti-war poster is declared unfit because “extreme anti-war postings could contribute to an environment of harassment based on military or veteran status.”
If this poster is “extreme,” what isn’t? Would it be acceptable if presented in the context of condemning Nazi soldiers? And to echo a point McAdams makes, are we to believe that military veterans cannot handle six words on a poster?
Professors who complete the module—theoretically, all of them—and take its lessons to heart will likely opt not to participate in discussion on a wide range of topics in order to avoid punishment for “harassment.” This chilling effect on faculty speech is unacceptable at an institution that claims to foster a “spirit of inquiry.”
This isn’t the first time FIRE has seen Marquette abandon free speech principles. Back in 2006, an administrator removed a purportedly “patently offensive” quote from the office door of a Ph.D. student. Here’s the quote, by the hilarious and insightful Dave Barry (who happens to be on the honorary host committee for FIRE’s 15th Anniversary Gala this October):
As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.
Not to be outdone by the humorist, the chair of the philosophy department rationalized the decision by stating that the quote had “no obvious academic import.” Such preposterous instances of censorship, if anything, are made more likely by Marquette’s problematic new training.
See what other protected expression Marquette’s training program is telling faculty they can’t engage in at Marquette Warrior. (As noted at the top of the site, it is not affiliated with the university.)
Marquette’s poorly conceived training course makes us wonder what other speech-restrictive programs are out there. If you’re a student or professor who is required to complete a course that chills speech or violates your right to privacy, tell FIRE by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.