Penn State Gets Flagged by Free Speech Group For Sexual Harassment Policy

December 24, 2014

By Charles Thompson at PennLive.com

Penn State has been working hard to fight sexual abuse in all forms in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky crisis.

And now a Philadelphia-based free speech advocacy group thinks the university has gone too far in its new sexual harassment policy, potentially opening the door to disciplinary action for bruised feelings.

Penn State disagrees, arguing that its policy, which took effect in January, effectively balances freedom of expression and protection from harassment.

The new policy has caused the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to move Penn State into its poorest, or “red”, rating, largely because the rewrite adopts far broader language in its general definition of sexual harassment.

Penn State’s policy gets more specific before triggering discipline of university employees, but FIRE’s Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris said the general definition could actually land a student in trouble for telling a dirty joke.

Even worse, Harris said, in her interpretation the language “could actually be used against a student who expresses opinions about sex and gener-realted topics that other students object to.”

FIRE said one easy step Penn State could take to clarify the policy is to add back now-deleted language that stated:

“To constitute prohibited harassment, the conduct must be such that it detrimentally affects the individual in question and would also detrimentally affect a reasonable person under the same circumstances.”

Without the reasonable person language, Harris said, she believes Penn State’s policy is “too subjectively dependent upon what someone else feels is inappropriate.”

Harris said she realizes that Penn State is hyper-sensitive to sexual abuse in all its forms at this point in its history, but argues that with the new policy “they’re trying to build fences around fences here.”

Penn State is not unique in getting a red rating from FIRE.

Of 30 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania that have been screened by FIRE, 16 have the red rating, including Bucknell, Dickinson, Gettysburg and Franklin & Marshall, Lafayette and Lehigh.

Of 333 public universities nationally, some 54 hold red ratings, according to the group’s latest annual report.

A university spokesman said Wednesday that Penn State officials do not agree with FIRE’s argument, and they hang their hat in part on introductory language in the policy that states: “This policy shall not be construed to restrict academic freedom at the University, nor shall it be to restrict constitutionally protected expression.”

With that, Lisa Powers said, “Penn State is committed to both freedom of expression and the protection of our students and employees from harassment and intimidation.

“We firmly believe that our policies properly promote and protect both of these interests, which are at the core of the University’s mission.”