A broad coalition of groups has asked the Department of Education to reject calls from feminist groups to ban anonymous speech on campus under an extremely loose interpretation of Title IX – and to revise its own definition of harassment.
The National Coalition Against Censorship, American Association of University Professors, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Student Press Law Center are defending student use of apps including Yik Yak, which lets students share their thoughts anonymously in a campuswide feed.
The letter responds to an effort by dozens of feminist and civil rights groups to punish the University of Mary Washington for not monitoring, identifying and punishing students who post offensive content on apps like Yik Yak, saying it constitutes harassment under Title IX.
The free-speech defenders told Acting Secretary John King and Office for Civil Rights chief Catherine Lhamon that satisfying the feminists would also undermine judicial precedent that protects civil-rights protests, including a case won by civil-rights leader Charles Evers.
Precedent has also upheld the legality of material that depicts “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women,” they wrote: Opponents of such material “made arguments much like those pressed against UMW” that speech can be squelched if it “reflects and promotes discriminating attitudes and behaviors.”
The letter blames Lhamon’s office for blurring the line between free speech and harassment, citing its 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter that defined sexual harassment as including “sexual comments, jokes or gestures” and even “creating e-mails” of a sexual nature. That explicitly contradicts Supreme Court precedent, they said.
The signatories warn that OCR’s muddled interpretation of Title IX has threatened the freedom of professors who teach and write on sexual issues, including Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis:
It was never the intent of Title IX to chill debate and discussion over controversial topics, much less to target women expressing controversial views on sensitive topics or violating social norms defining “ladylike” behavior.