We must improve UNT’s sexual harassment policy

We must improve UNT’s sexual harassment policy

We must improve UNT’s sexual harassment policy
February 05
03:47 2017

James Stevens | Contributing Writer

Each university has its own legal way of handling unwarranted sexual advances and harassment. However in 2007, the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom mentioned that “most college and university speech codes would not survive a legal challenge…”

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that colleges adopt these codes because they fear harassment lawsuits, “leaving victims of sexual harassment unprotected through three major discrepancies: their lack of a ‘reasonable person’ standard, the lack of severity and pervasiveness requirements and [their] problematic examples.”

If these codes cannot defend victims during a legal battle, who are they really serving?

To quote UNT’s policy on sexual misconduct: “Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature including but not limited to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexual violence and other verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Here are the three amendments we need to fight for in order to establish a safer environment for UNT students.

  1. The Addition of a Reasonable Person Perspective

Harassment has to be evaluated not only from the victim, but also from the perspective of a “reasonable person” in the victim’s position. This procedure defines the event of harassment as both subjective and objective, which is the requirement for any judicial action to be taken.

This also protects innocent students who are wrongly accused of misconduct from falling prey to malicious slander. The addition of the “reasonable person” clause boils down to protecting and helping students who have undoubtedly been sexually harassed while disallowing students who have not been subject to this awful experience from seeking unjust retribution.

  1. The Addition of Severity and Pervasiveness

Most codes of conduct use vague terms out of laziness or lack of legal advice and in this case, we see that the linchpin to an entire case rests on an ambiguous word. “Unwelcome,” as a legal term, lends itself to be interpreted very broadly. What scares me most about interpretation is that lawyers’ sole jobs rely on the re/misinterpretation of the law.

Therefore, big guys win and the little girl loses because her pockets aren’t as deep. This could absolutely be avoided.

The American Civil Liberties Union mentions the effects of vague wording in an article regarding hate speech codes at the University of Michigan. That college made a code of conduct to fight racism, primarily focusing on hate speech from white students to black students, but the wording of the code was so vague to the students it was meant to protect that several were effectively singled out and punished.

According to the ACLU, “white students in 20 cases charged black students with offensive speech” for 18 months. “One of the cases resulted in the punishment of a black student for using the term ‘white trash’ in conversation with a white student,” and after that, “the code was struck down as unconstitutional in 1989.”

Unlike the broad term of “unwelcome,” the Supreme Court’s definition of harassment requires the action to be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.” It only makes sense that we implement this clause as a way to protect the victims of sexual and other forms of harassment because it helps establish a criteria for victims to supply evidence for.

  1. The Deletion of an Examples List

The example list is counter-intuitive because it outlines only a handful of conducts considered to be sexual harassment. But since it’s technically “not limited to” the list, students are left to consider whether or not their incident counts as harassment. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education states that “lists of examples like this are highly misleading.”

Another reason behind the need for this particular change is that the list – explicitly stating any “unwelcome” verbal sexual conduct constitutes as sexual harassment – stifles students’ participation in open topics about sex, sexual identity and other topics. No student wants to face disciplinary action due to some unconventional idea or comment concerning a taboo subject.

I propose that we adopt the following sexual harassment definition in place of our currently useless one: “Any verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, which interferes with a reasonable person’s ability to participate in the educational process.”

The execution of this new code would accomplish two things. First, it would protect the victims of sexual harassment from vague codes that can be dismissed, overturned and used against the victim, who it is intended to help.

Lastly, it would protect every student from having their right to free speech compromised.

Featured Image: The photo is a dramatization of a harasser blackmailing his victim. Originally taken on Mar. 9, 2015. Leon Isreal

About Author

Preston Mitchell

Preston Mitchell

Preston served as the Opinion Editor of the North Texas Daily from July 2016 to July 2017, and is a UNT graduate of integrative studies.

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