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Public university could ban Valentine’s Day cards under sexual harassment policy

‘Self-censor or think twice before sending a valentine’

Planning to send someone a Valentine’s Day card? You might want to get their affirmative consent before making any romantic gesture.

The University of New Orleans defines sexual harassment so broadly that it could functionally ban Valentine’s Day cards, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which named the public university its “speech code of the month” for February.

The four-year-old harassment policy, which is scheduled for review next year, includes several examples of sexual harassment without noting they are not enough on their own to lose First Amendment protection.

They include “unwanted sexual advances” as mild as “touching” (that handshake felt icky), “visual displays such as leering” (don’t look at anyone directly), “gratuitous displays of sexually suggestive objects” including cartoons (there’s some of that in The Simpsons), “graphic sexual commentary about an individual’s body” (no requirement that they even know about it), and – most relevant to Valentine’s Day – “sending suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations.”

As noted by Laura Beltz, FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform, these examples are only legally punishable when they meet the Supreme Court’s Davis standard for “peer hostile environment harassment in the educational setting.” Not that you’d know that by reading the taxpayer-funded university’s policy.

MORE: Harvard Valentine’s dating service adds nonbinary gender option

“If students are left wondering if sending a valentine will land them in trouble, the university is not living up to its legal obligation to protect students’ free speech rights,” she wrote in an email.

It must specify that suggestive notes such as Valentine’s Day cards must be “part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment,” or else students may take the example list at face value and “self-censor or think twice before sending a valentine.”

FIRE said UNO’s policy is not an isolated problem among universities, many of which provide “a multitude of examples” of speech-related harassment that may not even violate their own harassment policies “when standing alone.”

But it gave a positive example of another public university – the University of North Florida – that clearly links its provided examples to its stated harassment policy.

UNO is in bad company when it comes to Louisiana colleges, according to FIRE. More than half in the state have a “red light” rating from FIRE, meaning they have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, and none earns FIRE’s best “green light” rating.

The university did not respond to a College Fix request for comment about FIRE’s claims Monday night.

MORE: The most absurd campus Valentine’s Day events

IMAGE: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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