Volokh on FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month: University of Iowa

August 10, 2007

Today FIRE friend and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh blogged about the sexual harassment policy at the University of Iowa, FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for August. As we reported last week, Iowa states that 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.” This is an extremely broad definition that includes a lot of constitutionally protected speech.

Volokh agrees that Iowa’s definition of harassment is “strikingly broad.” He explains that at Iowa,

sexual harassment is not defined to include solely behavior targeted at the complainant. Nor is it limited to behavior in class or in university workplaces (where of course the professor and the supervisors may rightly constrain speech).

Rather, it deliberately covers any place and context in the university. If someone puts up a sexually themed cartoon on his dorm room door (either “sexually graphic” or presumably including “sexual joke[s],” from the first quote), that’s a “red flag[] / harassing behavior.” Likewise, when someone tells a sexual joke in a cafeteria to his friends at your table (even if the last sentence of the first quote is part of the definition, assume the sexual joke is disrespectful to its subject, say Britney Spears), and you hear it but you don’t want to hear it, that’s sexual harassment, and apparently a university disciplinary matter. Likewise if he talks about his sexual experiences in a way that’s embarrassing to some other person, and you overhear (again, assume you’re sitting at the table with the people he’s talking to). And this at a university, where 18-to-21-year-olds live, socialize, and have sex with each other. Oy.

Thanks to Eugene for picking up on the absurdity of Iowa’s policy. Hopefully the dubious distinction of being named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month will effect a change in this policy. It wouldn’t be the first time.