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Feminists threaten Virginia university for not investigating ‘sexism’ on social media

‘We appreciate any guidance’ from the feds

The anonymous social-media app Yik Yak may be facing its biggest threat yet, owing to boorish posts against feminists at the University of Mary Washington (UMW).

The Virginia university is under fire as well for not seeking to identify the posters of crude but nonthreatening content on the app.

Dozens of feminist and civil rights groups asked the federal government to penalize universities that do not monitor, identify and punish students who post offensive content on apps like Yik Yak.

Yet shooting the messenger won’t do anything to solve the longstanding problems of harassment on campus, and punishing students for speech is probably unconstitutional, according to academics at other colleges.

‘Derogatory’ statements equal ‘harassment’

Led by the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms. magazine, the groups’ Oct. 20 letter to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said UMW is violating regulations against discrimination by sex, race, color and national origin.

They pointed to a 2010 OCR letter to universities that said Internet harassment should be monitored like any other kind of harassment. (Yik Yak, which has been compared to a hyperlocal version of Twitter, was founded years later by students at Furman University.)

OCR should issue “guidance reminding academic institutions of their legal obligations to prevent and remedy all forms of prohibited harassment, including harassment through anonymous social media applications,” they said.

UMW’s own campus group, Feminists United, sparked the complaint against the school after one of its members, Grace Mann, was murdered in her college home this spring.

Come check out our bake sale in front of Lee and make a donation to our club. We’ll be here today, tomorrow, and Thursday, 11-3. We have sweet treats, buttons, resources, and stickers!

Posted by Feminists United UMW on Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Following her death, for which a long-graduated UMW rugby player was blamed, some students took to Yik Yak to scorn feminist initiatives and even threaten some members of Feminists United.

Mann’s murder was never connected to posts on Yik Yak, despite the feminists’ original complaint to the government making that connection. They also said that “sexist” and “derogatory” comments counted as harassment.

Universities including UMW have cited First Amendment concerns in response to calls to block Yik Yak, and have noted that the app can still be accessed by students using their cellular signals.

Though UMW President Richard Hurley earlier sent the Feminist Majority Foundation an angry letter rebutting its claims, the school is acting more conciliatory now.

Marty Morrison, director of media and public relations at UMW, told The College Fix there are no plans to block Yik Yak entirely from the campus network, but officials do plan on taking whatever recommendations the OCR provides.

“We have designees monitoring YikYak to the best of their ability,” Morrison said in an email.

“Sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, is a serious problem confronted by college students across the nation,” Morrison continued. “At the University of Mary Washington, making our campus as safe as possible is a top priority, so we appreciate any guidance offered by the OCR.”

Neither Kelsey Carrol with Feminist Majority Foundation, nor Debra Katz, the attorney representing the organizations who filed the OCR complaint, responded to requests for comment.

UVA researcher: Harassment isn’t a problem on Yik Yak

The complaint to OCR is unlikely to make a difference in campus harassment and it goes far beyond punishing threats, according to academic observers.

Francesca Tripodi, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education Tuesday that her own research shows harassment on Yik Yak is “rare” and the community of posters does a good job of policing “blatant sexist rhetoric.”

“Shutting down Yik Yak might hide insidious remarks from view, but it also shuts down the opportunity for faculty, administrators, and students to better understand the broader problems of racism and sexism that exist on their campuses,” she wrote.

“We can ban one” form of gossip on campus, “but another one comes up and there is a real possibility that we won’t be able to ban all the possibilities,” Dartmouth University Sociology Prof. Janice McCabe told the student paper, The Dartmouth.

Yik Yak is “just annoying” compared to an earlier anonymous board at Dartmouth, Bored at Baker, on which a student gave instructions on how to rape a specific student, Dartmouth student Clare Mathias told The Dartmouth.

“Bullying would exist regardless of things like Yik Yak,” Michael Bronski, Dartmouth women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor, told The Dartmouth, when the problem is “the social systems that allows [sic] this to happen.”

Silence campus conservatives by making them speak publicly

UCLA Law Prof. Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert and Washington Post blogger, called the feminist signatories on the OCR letter “the national coalition in favor of campus censorship.”

The groups’ letter to OCR “goes very far beyond just calling on universities to punish threats,” Volokh wrote, with the coalition “arguing that the speech should be restricted precisely because of the viewpoints it expresses, and the offense and ‘hostile environment’ that those viewpoints cause.”

He further scrutinized the complaint in a followup post, particularly the feminists’ claim that President Hurley had engaged in “retaliation” by publicly defending UMW against their claims.

A former OCR staffer, Hans Bader, blogged that the feminists’ “real goal” seems to be “to silence dissent on campus by eliminating students’ ability to express their opinions anonymously.”

Now a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Bader wrote: “The ability to speak anonymously [on platforms like Yik Yak] gives moderate and conservative students a chance to speak.”

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About the Author
Courtney Such -- Furman University.