Madeline Gootman is a FIRE summer intern.
As most of my friends will tell you, I am an outspoken young woman when it comes to matters of sexuality and sexual health. I recently joined the Vanderbilt Peer Sex Educators, an organization of students formed to increase the campus dialogue surrounding sexual health. In addition to my extracurriculars surrounding sexuality (I also work at the Women’s Center on campus), I am majoring in Women and Gender Studies.
After hearing about my very feminist list of extracurriculars, a reasonable person might assume that I would not have a problem with the May 9 “blueprint” (PDF) agreement that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) made with the University of Montana. However, if my university were to adopt the new definition of sexual harassment used by OCR, “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” (including “verbal conduct,” also known as speech), then I would need to engage in a lot of self-censorship to avoid the inevitable accusations that I could foresee being made against me.
Last semester, I took a class entitled The History of Pornography and Prostitution. I worked my entire schedule around this course because it was the only time it would be offered during my college career. One of my favorite professors was teaching the course, and a lot of my fellow Women and Gender Studies majors and friends were enrolled. Within my small discussion group with the professor and through the course reading, I got to explore the subject openly and academically—and I loved it. However, by the end of the semester, I had engaged in so much self-censorship because of other students’ attitudes that my experience in the course was severely damaged.
At the beginning of the course, we had to sign a waiver saying that we had read the syllabus and were aware that there would be sexual content in the course that would likely make us uncomfortable at some point. However, fellow classmates began admonishing our professor for the content that she chose to teach. The quote that best sums up the majority sentiment of the class, or at least the students who had enrolled in the class as a “joke course” for their senior year, was what one of them said to me near the end of the semester: “I signed up for a porn class—not a gay porn class.”
This pervasive attitude made me less likely to speak up in class, because I believed that I would be retaliated against by fellow students for the comments I would make and the questions that I would ask. I am used to having fellow students roll their eyes at me and be annoyed by the sex-positive attitude that I take, which can sometimes make them uncomfortable. They would seemingly prefer not to discuss certain topics, which leads me to wonder why they enrolled in a class about pornography in the first place.
This course and my other activities on campus are why the OCR definition of sexual harassment (PDF) worries me, because I know that many of my fellow students would find a lot of what I say to be “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Considering students’ reactions to what I did feel comfortable saying in that class, it’s highly likely that under OCR’s regime, those students would have reported me, other outspoken students, or my professor for making them uncomfortable. Adopting the new OCR standard on my campus would result in a very real chilling effect—and not just in my class. Discussions about my major and the clubs with which I associate, and even my general lunchtime conversations, could be construed as sexual harassment under the new standard.
While the majority of those who have opined on the “blueprint” have been supportive of FIRE’s position and of free speech, there has been some criticism of FIRE’s position on the blueprint letter from those who support OCR’s broad definition of sexual harassment. These critics dismiss FIRE’s concerns by saying that the misuse of this standard to punish constitutionally protected speech or chill important academic contributions would never happen because administrative oversight will safeguard speech.
I am disappointed by these critics’ apparent lack of knowledge about the history of abuse of administrative discretion on campuses and about FIRE’s ample case history. I am downright terrified by these critics’ unreserved trust of those in power positions to always protect the interests of students and individuals. I would like to introduce these proponents of placing unreserved trust in administrators and bureaucrats toJammie Price, a professor at Appalachian State University who was punished for screening a documentary on pornography in her classroom and for holding opinions that were not flattering towards the school’s athletic department. I would also point them to the University of Denver, where a professor was punished for sexual harassment after comparing historical anti-masturbation campaigns to the current drug war.
Ultimately, I fear for my contemporaries at the University of Montana. OCR’s new, overbroad policy is just waiting for the overreaction of one student who feels that their slight discomfort warrants the admonition of those who share my daily academic and personal pursuits centered on gender, sexuality, and other “uncomfortable” topics. To me, these topics are what fuel my passion for study. If OCR’s definition wins out, my academic exploration would be so limited as to lead me to question whether I would even pursue those areas in the future under such restrictive oversight.
Image: “Class Act” via Shutterstock