A university has ended its investigation into a brash banner, characterized by critics as sexual harassment, hung outside a fraternity building at Wichita State fraternity – for all of five minutes one day – because officials have admitted the speech was covered by the First Amendment.
The banner, which faced a neighboring sorority recruitment event, said “New Members Free House Tours!”
The school had launched a Title IX investigation into the incident after a student reported the banner, claiming it caused “uncomfortable feelings.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a letter to the school explaining that the speech was constitutionally protected.
A short time later, the school “affirmed the expression was protected by the First Amendment and dropped its investigation.”
FIRE reported the banner was hanging outside the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house for “approximately five minutes” recently during the sorority’s nearby recruitment drive.
Fraternity members then took it down and apologized.
“FIRE is pleased that Wichita State quickly recognized that the banner was constitutionally protected and dropped the investigation,” said Ari Cohn, a spokesman for the rights organization.
“While universities have an obligation to respond to complaints, administrators must be careful to first evaluate the complaint and determine whether an investigation is necessary in light of First Amendment protections.”
The organization had told President John Bardo that investigating speech “sends a message to all students that if their expression offends others, they will be subjected to disciplinary investigation.”
When the unidentified student complained about the banner, the Division of Student Affairs said it was being investigated.
“Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall said the investigation was motivated in part by recent announcements from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos,” FIRE reported. “In a Sept. 7 speech, DeVos criticized the federal government’s overbroad and unconstitutional definition of sexual harassment under Title IX, the law against sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.”
Fire said the Obama definition “has led to a wave of administrative overreaction to constitutionally protected speech, including a professor who was punished after a 504-day investigation for a test question about waxing and another who was the subject of a Title IX investigation for an essay she wrote suggesting there are too many Title IX investigations.”
DeVos said in her speech: “Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach.”
FIRE pointed out that while such banners are not “universally appreciated,” they are constitutionally protected.