Students at the University of New Orleans should think twice about sending out any Valentine’s Day cards if they don’t want to risk being expelled for sexual harassment, according to a free-speech advocacy group.
A four-year-old harassment policy defines sexual harassment so broadly that it could effectively ban Valentine’s Day cards, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
The College Fix reported the 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.
FIRE named the public university’s policy, “Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation,” its “speech code of the month” for February.
The College Fix cites the code’s wording of offending actions and adds its own comment in parentheses:
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.”
Laura Beltz, FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform, explained the problem with the code is that such examples are legally punishable only when they meet the Supreme Court’s Davis standard for “peer hostile environment harassment in the educational setting”
“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.
Beltz said the code needs to specify that suggestive notes such as Valentine’s Day cards must be “part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment” or students may take the example list at face value and “self-censor or think twice before sending a valentine.”
FIRE said many other universities have a similar policy.
However, in contrast, the University of North Florida has a harassment policy that puts any examples of behavior in context.
The university’s policy states clearly that any given examples need to rise to the level of the definition of harassment it provides.
The North Florida policy, FIRE explains, makes it clear to students “that an example like ‘slurs’ — which might not be punishable on its own, depending on context — must be a part of conduct that meets the definition of harassment in the policy in order to constitute harassment.”
FIRE said that more than half of the colleges and universities in Louisiana have its “red light” rating, meaning they have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.
The College Fix said the University of New Orleans did not respond to a request for comment about FIRE’s claims.