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Destroying First Amendment rights doesn't make UM safer

2013-07-07T00:00:00Z Destroying First Amendment rights doesn't make UM safer The Billings Gazette
July 07, 2013 12:00 am

A June 21 op-ed, "UM agreement gives students hope for safer community," argued that the agreement between the federal government and the University of Montana does not threaten free speech. Not true.

The authors rightly highlight the problem of sexual assault on UM's campus. Although the university's policies have always prohibited sexual misconduct, UM inexcusably did not enforce its rules. But setting up an unconstitutional system for monitoring speech will not compensate for that failing.

The authors believe the agreement does not "recommend or authorize disciplinary action for protected speech." But it defines "sexual harassment" as "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including "verbal conduct" (bureaucratese for "speech"). The agreement also says that speech does not have to be objectively offensive, meaning that gender-based remarks constitute sexual harassment if they offend anyone for any (or no) reason. In short, UM, an institution that exists to explore ideas, must treat comments, even those relating to policy issues such as same-sex marriage, as sexual harassment if anyone merely finds them "unwelcome."

The agreement also requires UM to investigate any alleged offensive comment about sexuality or gender and to maintain a database of incidents; it even allows UM to discipline the speaker before the investigation is complete. This regime cannot be justified as a proactive anti-harassment policy. It restricts free expression and effectively institutes government-mandated retaliation for speech. Yes, the UM campus must be safer. But destroying First Amendment rights on campus is not the way achieve that.

Catherine Sevcenko

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Philadelphia, Pa.

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