NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
I’m skeptical of the motives of many who complain about gender harassment and discrimination law and policies. If one listens to the Limbaughs of the world, before the Civil Rights Act and before corporations and universities began to follow policies against sexual harassment, women never faced discrimination, embarrassment, or humiliation in the workplace. A day at the office was like a Georgia ball, and women who worked were treated like Scarlett O’Hara. Harassment policies weren’t just unnecessary but sinister, an excuse for liberal feminazis who want to sue their bosses for gentlemanly behavior, such as opening the door for a lady.
But now and again a case comes along that fully validates the Hannitys and the Becks. As with the “Duke Lacrosse” scandal, such cases, in which a well-meant but poorly implemented gender harassment policy is abused, end up hurting women far more than any number of victories over real harassers, because they tar legitimate, well-founded complaints with suspicion. Such a case is unfolding at East Georgia College in Swainsboro Georgia right now. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has the story.
Professor Thomas Thibeault is a prophet. On August 5, 2009, Thibeault attended a training workshop on the school’s sexual harassment policy, given by the school’s vice president for legal affairs. In the course of the workshop, Thibeault asked an uncomfortable question about whether the policy distinguished between subjective harassment (in which some nervous nelly takes offense at innocent or reasonable behavior), and objective harassment (the sort of behavior, like for instance yelling about imaginary pubic hairs on cans of Coke, which any reasonable outsider would consider inappropriate). He was told it did not. Then Thibeault asked whether the policy included provisions to protect against obviously false or malicious accusations. He was told it did not. All accusations of harassment, no matter how facially implausible, would be treated alike. Thibeault replied that “the policy is invalid.”
Two days later, Thibeault’s prophecy came to pass. He alleges he was called into the office of East Georgia College President John Bryant Black, told he was a divisive force in the college, and ordered to resign at the end of the meeting. If he resigned, he’d be given a good recommendation for his next job. If Thibeault chose not to resign, he would be fired and his “long history of sexual harassment” would be made public. Thibeault chose not to resign, was fired and escorted by police from the campus, and told he’d be arrested for trespassing if he ever returned.
According to Thibeault, it was news that he had a “long history of sexual harassment,” but that’s what they all say. What inclines one to give Thibeault the benefit of the doubt is the timing of the action (what a coincidence that Thibeault was fired two days after asking probing and pertinent questions at a sexual harassment workshop!), and the college’s own suspicious actions afterward.
For instance, despite three months of requests, by Thibeault, Thibeault’s lawyer, and the FIRE, the college has yet to identify an accuser. East Georgia College is a state school, so Thibeault has a due proces right to this information, unlike what he’d have in a private school star chamber. The school has yet to inform Thibeault of what he supposedly did, with or without a witness. Thibeault has been informed by other professors of what appears to be an attempt by EGC to scrounge up evidence after the fact, with faculty being asked if they remember Thibeault reading, in a faculty gathering, from a political humor book with the word “assholes” in the title.
As an aside, if that’s the best the college can do Thibeault is going to collect a large damage award at the end of the day. I socialize with perfessers myself, and they’re nothing but old graduate students. When around people they consider near-equals, or at least not around students, they drink and curse like sailors. In any case, a college professor at a state school absolutely has a First Amendment right to use language as mild as the almost quaint A-word outside class, and to possess books with salty but non-obscene language.
Also suspicious is Thibeault’s classification. At first, Thibeault was told he was fired. Then, he was told he was suspended. Now, he’s told he’s suspended with pay, pending his hearing, which the college refuses to schedule or discuss despite two months of requests by Thibeault’s lawyer. All of course, with no evidence whatsoever being provided to anyone, not an accusation, not a fact, not a name.
In fact, nothing but the suspicious timing. From the looks of things, the only person Thibeault ever “harassed” at East Georgia College was its vice president for legal affairs, Mary Smith, and that harassment wasn’t sexual. No, if Thibeault harassed Smith, he did it by asking uncomfortable questions about a potentially illegal and unconstitutional sexual harassment policy.
Questions that the college now is answering, most eloquently, by its silence on the matter.