Following up on a 2011 letter to the US Commission on Civil Rights and Dept. of Education, NCAC joined a broad-based coalition of organization to protest the latest attempt by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to expand the definition of sexual harassment to include sexually-related speech that someone finds offensive, even if “a reasonable person” would not be offended.

The instructions are contained in a letter to the University of Montana, which the Departments calls “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” and which attempts to expand the definition of sexual harassment in ways that the Supreme Court has held infringes on First Amendment rights. The coalition letter in response to the government’s overbroad directive is posted here.

The coalition letter identifies some of the forms of expression that could be considered “sexual harassment” under the blueprint:

  • A classroom lecture on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
  • Campus readings of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
  • Dorm-room viewing of a Sarah Silverman comedy routine
  • A cafeteria debate about same-sex marriage

In the past, OCR clearly stated that harassment “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” Indeed, in the past, “OCR’s standards require that the conduct be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person in the alleged victim’s position, considering all the circumstances, including the alleged victim’s age.””

As NCAC previously explained in its letter to OCR, the right of free speech has been critical in the effort to secure equal opportunity, and undermining it threatens the goal of equality as much as it jeopardizes precious civil liberties: “The civil rights movement, and every other movement to expand equality rights, has succeeded precisely because advocates vigorously exercised their First Amendment rights to protest, demonstrate, petition government, and speak freely, even to those to whom their message was unpopular, controversial, and often deeply offensive. To undermine that critical right is to put at risk the very equality goals the Commission and OCR seek to promote.

Coalition Letter to DOJ ED July 2013