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Speech Code of the Month: University of Iowa

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for August 2007: the University of Iowa.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen—as we mentioned just a few days ago, the University of Iowa once received FIRE’s most favorable “green light” rating. But now it has come to our attention that in addition to its official sexual harassment policy, the university also maintains a website——that defines sexual harassment in a way that violates its students’ First Amendment rights.

According to the website, sexual harassment “occurs when somebody says or does something sexually related that you don’t want them to say or do, regardless of who it is.” Examples of such behavior include “[t]elling sexual jokes” and “[t]alking about their sexual experiences.” As I’m sure you can tell, this is an extremely broad definition that includes a lot of constitutionally protected speech. As much as we might not want to hear about our buddy’s conquest at the bar last night or his latest blonde joke, one such isolated comment does not constitute sexual harassment. Indeed, true sexual harassment—as the university’s other policy recognizes—is severe and pervasive conduct that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s ability to obtain an educational opportunity or benefit.

The problem with these dueling definitions is that students at the University of Iowa are left to guess which one the university will decide to apply to them. If you were a student, what would you do? Would you risk your academic career to tell an off-color joke in the hopes that the university would apply the “correct” definition of sexual harassment and leave you alone? Or would you refrain from saying anything that might violate the broader policy? Most students would no doubt choose the latter, and this “chilling effect” on free speech is impermissible at a public university like Iowa.

For these reasons, the University of Iowa is our August 2007 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

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