SACRAMENTO, Calif., January 4, 2012–After California State University–Chico’s definition of sexual harassment was named one of two “Speech Codes of the Year” for 2011 by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the university discarded language stating that faculty members could commit sexual harassment by continually using the generic “he” to refer to people of both sexes or by otherwise unintentionally reinforcing “sexist stereotypes.” While Chico State maintains other policies that restrict speech, this revision is the latest in a welcome trend. The other Speech Code of the Year, at the University of Florida, remains in place.
“FIRE is pleased that Chico State finally got rid of this ridiculous policy,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “We are waiting for the University of Florida to do the same to preserve free speech on campus.”
As of mid-December 2011, Chico State maintained an informational page on sexual harassment stating that faculty members committed sexual harassment if they “implicitly devalue[d] students for their gender or sexual orientation.” Examples of such harassment included “reinforcement of sexist stereotypes through subtle, often unintentional means,” including the use of “stereotypic generalizations” and the “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes or references to both men and women as necessarily heterosexual.”
In plain English, the policy meant that Chico State professors could actually be found guilty of sexual harassment for using “he” rather than “he or she” to refer to an unknown person, or for assuming that, for instance, a man who talked about his marriage was married to a woman. The problems presented by this broad definition would only be compounded in courses that necessarily involve discussion of issues relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation. FIRE named this policy “Speech Code of the Month” for March 2011.
By mid-December, Chico State had not revised its egregiously restrictive policy, so FIRE named it one of two Speech Codes of the Year along with the University of Florida’s Student Rights and Responsibilities policy. The University of Florida’s policy warns students that “Organizations or individuals that adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living will be subject to disciplinary action.” What upsets this undefined “delicate balance”—and, therefore, what students may be punished for doing or saying—is left completely to the discretion of administrators. Students have no way of knowing whether they are violating this speech code until they are brought before a campus court.
Yesterday, Chico State notified FIRE by phone that its policy was no longer published on the university’s website. The university also removed a policy that had defined sexual harassment as including “sexist comments,” “sexual innuendoes, comments, and remarks,” “suggestive, obscene, or insulting sounds,” and “humor or jokes about sex or gender in general.” The university, however, still maintains a definition of sexual harassment that includes “subtly demeaning behavior (including sexist jokes and assumptions), and unwelcome physical gestures like leering.”
Since FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month became a regular feature in June 2005, 32 universities have fully revised the policies that earned them the dubious distinction, including four schools named Speech Code of the Month in 2011.
“With these revisions, Chico State has taken the first step toward giving students and faculty the free speech rights they deserve,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research. “We stand ready to help Chico State revise its remaining speech codes, and we hope the University of Florida will follow suit.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Samantha Harris, Director, Speech Code Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org