U. of Pennsylvania Charges Junior Who Posted Images of Students Having Sex in Window

December 1, 2005

The University of Pennsylvania has charged at least one student with sexual harassment and misuse of electronic resources after he posted pictures on the Internet that show students apparently having sex while standing beside a large window in one of the university’s high-rise dormitories.

Pictures of the nude students were taken by more than one photographer. The images made the rounds through e-mail messages and various Web sites, and at least one of the photographers posted the pictures on his personal Penn Web site at the end of September. Pictures taken by a different photographer were posted, and widely viewed, on collegehumor.com.

Although the subjects’ faces are not clearly seen in the photographs, Penn students eventually found out who they were. At least one of the students in the pictures filed a sexual-harassment complaint with the university’s Office of Student Conduct, naming the student who posted the images on his Penn Web site.

Student-conduct officials completed their investigation early in November. They recommended that the student, identified only as a junior majoring in engineering, write a letter of apology, write an essay explaining why what he did was wrong, and be placed on disciplinary probation until graduation, a penalty that would create a permanent record of the incident.

The student can choose to accept the punishment, propose a different punishment, or challenge the university’s decision.

The Daily Pennsylvanian, the university’s student newspaper, ran an article on Wednesday about the photographs and the disciplinary recommendation, based on confidential memos the paper obtained concerning the investigation.

Andrew B. Geier, a graduate student in experimental psychology, has volunteered to advise the engineering junior. He said the naked students were in full view of the public and that taking a picture of such an event and circulating it online is not harassment.

"The kid took a picture of a public event, and he’s being crucified for it," Mr. Geier said. "My interest in this right now is for the university to see that they’re wrong."

Mr. Geier said at least one other student photographer could face disciplinary measures, but said he did not have any further details.

The university is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter today. Nobody at the Office of Student Conduct would comment on the investigation.

Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at Penn, has also volunteered to represent the engineering junior. Mr. Kors is a free-speech advocate who is also cofounder and chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nationally known free-speech organization. The foundation is not involved in this investigation.

Mr. Kors said on Wednesday that although the university is a private institution and is not legally held to the same First Amendment standards as a public institution, university policies protect students’ right to free expression as if it were. Taking a photograph of a public event and then disseminating it is a matter of free expression, he said.

"That’s university law," Mr. Kors said. "The very existence of an investigation of protected speech is chilling."

If anybody did anything wrong, he said, it’s the students who were having sex near a window for all the world to see. He added, however, that he hopes the university doesn’t investigate those students either.

"Don’t make love in an open window," Mr. Kors said. "I wish that people had more respect for privacy, but there are times when it’s appropriate to close the blinds."

Schools: University of Pennsylvania