When do sexual harassment protections overreach?

Posted in Sexual Harassment on May 18, 2013

When students leave for college, they often take jobs on campus as part of their financial aid packages or simply to make some additional money for books, pizza and other necessities. Many of these on-campus jobs create a strange power dynamic between employer and employee. For example, when a student takes a job as a research assistant for her professor, that professor suddenly has authority over both her grades and her financial stability.

Though many of these on-campus job dynamics are productive, respectful and contribute substantially to students’ education. However, others become toxic when the complicated power dynamic at play allows educators to engage in sexual harassment of their student employees.

The Department of Justice recently released a letter that may ultimately affect the ways in which sexual harassment is dealt with on college campuses. It is meant to serve as a guide to administrators in order to better protect students from this kind of conduct. Such guidance is welcome, given that sexual harassment prevention is a worthy and urgent goal.

However, critics are concerned that the specific guidance being given to administrators is overreaching and may lead to crackdowns on free speech. The guidance defines sexual harassment as any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including sexual favor requests, unwanted physical advances and “other verbal” conduct. This last categorization has some worried that any suggestive speech, even in the form of a lecture on controversial literature could be considered sexual harassment.

It is critical that the Department of Justice protect students from sexual harassment. However, its definition may benefit from additional clarity in order to silence critics and empower victims to come forward.

Source: The Blaze, “Sweeping New Anti-Sexual Harassment Code Might Hamper Free Speech on Campuses,” Liz Klimas, May 17, 2013