The Campus saVE Act, a bill that mandates relationship and sexual assault counseling for students at universities nationwide, was introduced into Congress earlier this month. If students are curious about what mandatory campus-sponsored relationship training could look like, they should consider a controversial workshop held at Hamilton College last year.
The name of the workshop? “She Fears You.”
The workshop is run by Keith Edwards, who has spoken on dozens of campuses over the last ten years as part of his program, Men Ending Rape. His message—that male students are complicit in a culture of rape that pervades all university campuses—is controversial. But it was his visit to Hamilton College last September that provoked widespread criticism from students, alumni, and free speech organizations—largely because administrators at the college required students to attend.
Students received a campus-wide e-mail a week before the workshop with the instructions, “First-Year men are required to attend.” Freshmen women were instructed to show up for a separate event.
Such tactics earned Hamilton College a rebuke from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which awarded the university a 2011 “Jefferson Muzzle” last month.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also took issue with the decision to compel attendance at the events. Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE, said that She Fears You was too contentious and ideologically-driven to serve as a mandatory workshop.
“The university has the right to require students to, say, attend a presentation that straightforwardly presents information about the university sexual assault policy and the laws on sexual assault,” she said. “But this program, and I suspect a lot of the things contemplated by the saVE Act, go beyond that.”
Mandatory programs that force students to accept a certain viewpoint are in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections, according to Harris. And though private universities like Hamilton College are not bound to follow the First Amendment, most make promises to uphold students’ rights, she said.
“It’s a violation of those promises to either censor students or intrude on their freedom of conscience the way ‘She Fears You’ did,” Harris said.
Mandatory sexual harassment sessions have their defenders. Security On Campus, a crime victims’ rights and campus safety advocacy organization backing the Campus saVE Act, supports them. Melissa Lucchesi, outreach coordinator for SOC, listed mandatory relationship counseling as one of the bill’s major strengths.
“Now they’ll be required to have education programs on campus so that students will be aware of these issues, and also how they can get help, and what their rights are,” she said.
Wendy Murphy, a member of the advisory board of SOC, doesn’t think the bill poses any free speech problems.
“It is not remotely offensive to free speech principles to mandate attendance at certain educational programs related to the prevention of civil rights violations,” she wrote.
She noted that students could choose to attend universities that do not accept federal funds and are therefore exempt from complying with the bill.
“If they want to practice FREE-ER speech, they can choose to go to a different school where such rules are not in place,” she wrote.
That doesn’t mean the approach taken by Hamilton College was the right one. While Murphy declined to comment specifically on the merits of “She Fears You,” she indicated that its provocative method isn’t one she prefers.
“Making either women or men afraid of the other hasn’t been my approach when I teach this issue,” she wrote.
But for others, whether or not “She Fears You“ is a good model for the relationship training sessions mandated by the Campus SaVe Act is beside the point.
“The government shouldn’t be requiring this in the first place,” said Ashley Thorne, director of communications for the National Association of Scholars.
Thorne echoed many of Harris’s concerns about how the bill’s provisions will impact free expression on campus.
“They are invasive of students’ privacy, and they tend to point the finger at them before they’ve done anything, and really limit free speech,” she said.
The Campus saVE Act has yet to become law, and the website for “She Fears You” lists only one campus that has participated in the program since it visited Hamilton, where concerns over sexual assault persist.
Robert Paquette, a professor of American History at Hamilton College, recalled an incident on April 27. The Dean of Students alerted campus via e-mail that chapel bells and air horns would blare at 11:30 a.m. in order to recognize victims of sexual assault.
Paquette—who believes that police departments, not university administrators, are better suited to handling rape—thinks the college’s concern is somewhat selective, no matter what workshops it holds.
“One might think that if sexual assault at Hamilton College is such a problem that bells and air horns are required to awaken the community—a most extraordinary gesture we’d all have to agree—then Hamilton’s admissions office and public relations arm have a duty to alert parents nationwide who might be thinking of sending their daughters here about the severity of the problem,” he wrote.