July 22, 2005

Silliness at William Patterson University

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education press release on the case of Jihad Daniel at William Patterson University illustrates the problems of overly broad language on harassment that in essence defines any speech as harassment if it offends someone, for virtually any reason. Apparently, the employee and grad student responded to an e-mail announcement of a showing of Ruth and Connie: Every Room in the House. He wrote back the head of William Patterson's women's studies department asking not to receive any more e-mail about films including gay or lesbian content.

Daniel's e-mail was not disruptive. It was vocal, and he clearly was not happy with the e-mailed announcement broadcast to the whole university. I think he's substantively wrong on the appropriateness of such announcements and the practicality of omitting specific individuals from such broadcasts. But he was within his First Amendment rights to write the e-mail. So what happened next was Kafkaesque: The university accused him of harassment just for his e-mail, and his fairly clear defense had absolutely no effect.

Students, faculty, and staff have the legitimate expectation of an environment that is physically safe and provides an opportunity to learn and discuss ideas without discrimination based on anything other than the merit of one's ideas. But those expectations do not cover intellectual and emotional comfort. Universities are precisely the place where you'd expect some stiff challenges to your ideas.

When challenged (gee, there's that word again),I have heard a lawyer at one university suggest that "offensive" speech could be replaced by "discriminatory" in speech-code language and leave an acceptable policy. For my 3.14159... readers, does this make any sense?

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Posted in Academic freedom on July 22, 2005 2:04 PM |