At the annual Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government earlier this month, former American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen expressed grave concerns about the federal government pressuring colleges to adopt unconstitutional policies that infringe on civil liberties.
Strossen, the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School, told the audience that this recent development is among the most troubling of the numerous and pervasive threats to free speech on campuses today. Strossen said:
Specifically, I’m referring to the overbroad, unjustified concept of illegal sexual harassment as extending to speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive. This distorted concept has recently become entrenched on campus due to pressure from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights—the OCR. By threatening to pull federal funds, the OCR has forced schools, even well-endowed schools such as Harvard, to adopt sexual misconduct policies that violate many civil liberties.
Of course, combating gender discrimination, violence, and sexual assault is of the utmost urgency. I hope that goes without saying. … But OCR’s distorted concept of sexual harassment actually does more harm than good to gender justice, not to mention to free speech.
FIRE has raised these concerns repeatedly in recent years.
Strossen began her talk by praising Harvard Law School alum and FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate—who was in the audience—as a “free speech champion” and calling FIRE “a very important organization.” She also noted that construing protected sex-related speech as sexual harassment is a problem “that Harvey Silverglate complained about specifically at Harvard Law School way back in 1996 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.”
You can read more coverage and analysis of Strossen’s speech in Conor Friedersdorf’s piece, “How Sexual-Harassment Policies Are Diminishing Academic Freedom,” published yesterday in The Atlantic.