Indecent treatment

December 1, 2005

Sexual harassment charges over a photo of the outside of a building? That is ridiculous. But that is what the Office of Student Conduct is threatening one student with for what, at worst, is an exercise in poor taste An Engineering junior who has admitted to taking photos of two naked students and then posting them on his personal Penn Web site faces disciplinary action that by many accounts is abnormally harsh.

Judging the content of what the student posted is not the aim here. His choice to post nude photos on the Internet was as ill-advised as the choice the two individuals in the picture made in not closing their window blinds.

A reasonable course of action for Penn would have been to ask that the photos be removed from its servers. End of story.

But that is not what the OSC chose to do. Instead, the office decided to make a big deal out of it with serious charges that could seriously affect the photographer for many years to come.

And for a University that is not unfamiliar with issues of free speech, the heavy-handedness of the disciplinarians involved is excessive.

It is worth noting the black eye Penn received nationally when it took action against a student for speech it disagreed with a dozen years ago. The so-called "Water Buffalo" incident reminded all of academia of the importance of free expression — whether that expression is politically correct or not.

In this case, the expression at hand was vulgar — both on the Internet and in the dorm-room window for hundreds of residents to see. But does this expression constitute sexual harassment and a privacy invasion as the University alleges?

A reasoned look at the facts and the school’s own policies on the issue would point to no.

That privacy was violated in this case is a highly dubious assertion. Many legal scholars, including Penn professor Alan Kors who is defending the student who is charged, have said a reasonable expectation of privacy does not exist considering the circumstances.

Without an established expectation of privacy, Penn’s charge of violating its sexual-harassment policy carries little weight. The University notes that sexual harassment consists of acts which create "an intimidating or offensive academic, living or work environment."

Both parties are guilty of this, at least to some extent.

More importantly, the policy goes on to say that "not every act that might be offensive to an individual or group necessarily will be considered as harassment and/or a violation of the University’s standard of conduct." It goes on to note the importance of context and the totality of circumstances in deciding the charge.

The circumstances are simple: Two people chose to expose themselves in front of an open window. Others chose to take pictures and post them on a Web site with little identifying information about the subjects other than their location.

There is no reason for the University to blow this out of proportion, and there is no reason to force this student to admit to sexual harassment — a charge that could be reported to potential employers and others in the future. And an essay "discussing what was wrong" with this incident seems like a waste of time.

What is wrong with this incident is how Penn is strong-arming a student simply for having poor taste.

Schools: University of Pennsylvania