Last week, several news outlets reported that a student at the University of Tennessee (UT) received a zero on a quiz—a grade his professor justified because he viewed an answer as sexual harassment under Title IX. Now he’s being investigated by campus officials after unidentified faculty saw the absurd interpretation being mocked by entertainment website Total Frat Move.
How might one violate Title IX on a quiz? The first question on the quiz asked “What is your Lab instructor’s name?” and invited students to “make something good up”—that is, a joke—if they don’t remember his or her name. The student, Keaton Wahlbon, couldn’t remember his lab instructor’s name, so he wrote a generic first name, Sarah, and a common last name, Jackson. Writing Sarah Jackson—an altogether ordinary name—landed Wahlbon in hot water with his lab instructor and his professor. In fact, the quiz was returned to Wahlbon with the word “inappropriate” next to his Sarah Jackson answer.
As it turns out, Sarah Jackson happens to be the name of a Canadian actress and lingerie model. It is also a name shared by thousands of other people across the world. Wahlbon tried to explain to his professor that he wrote what he thought was a generic name on the quiz and did not intend to be crass. According to an email screenshot obtained by Total Frat Move, his professor wrote:
I have no way of determining your intention. I can only consider the result. The result is that you gave the name of Sarah Jackson, who is a lingerie and nude model. That result meets the Title IX definition of sexual harassment. The grade of zero stands and will not be changed.
As our readers know, the Supreme Court defined peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context as conduct that is so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” No reasonable person could believe that a student giving an incorrect quiz answer rises to the level of harassment defined by the Court. Its absurdity is what led to sites like Total Frat Move covering the story.
That coverage, unfortunately, appears to have led UT officials to—without a complaint by the student or TA—open a Title IX investigation because faculty saw the post on Total Frat Move. As if it wasn’t enough for Wahlbon to be censured for sexual harassment for an incorrect answer on a quiz, apparently publicly pointing out the absurdity of such an interpretation has subjected him to a formal investigation by the university. Investigations, as we’ve said before, can have a chilling effect on speech.
FIRE is watching UT’s investigation closely and hopes that it will be promptly closed with no charges against Wahlbon. We also caution UT faculty against setting such a low bar for what constitutes a Title IX violation (which, again, this clearly is not), given the ease with which professors can find themselves the targets of prolonged Title IX investigations for what they say or write, even when the claims against them are baseless.
For those interested in reading more about recent Title IX trends, check out the new book Twisting Title IX by FIRE’s Robert Shibley. In it, Robert shares stories from college students and faculty from across the country who have seen their free speech and due process rights violated in the name of Title IX.