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US Attorney General Eric H. Holder testifies during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services US Attorney General Eric H. Holder testifies during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services'(IRS) scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)  

DOJ waves away free speech, privacy at U. Montana

Photo of Robby Soave
Robby Soave
Reporter

Teachers at the University of Montana who fail to submit to a sexual harassment prevention tutorial will have their names added to a list and sent to the Department of Justice under the university’s new policy, which many experts say is intrusive and contradictory.

The new policy is the culmination of months of negotiation between the university and the federal government. The university was accused of inadequately guarding against harassment on campus, and failing to respond properly when harassment did occur. To make amends, Montana agreed to implement the DOJ’s harassment guidelines, which are intended to serve as a model for universities nationwide.

Some First Amendment-conscious students, professors and organizations say the guidelines could curb free speech rights. And now, it seems their fears have come true. (RELATED: Holder imposing broader sexual harassment definition on campuses)

The Montana Kaimin, a student newspaper at the University of Montana, reported that some professors were self-censoring the content of their lectures in order to stave off potential complaints under the new policy. Jeff Wiltse, an assistant history professor, recently showed the acclaimed 1989 film “Do The Right Thing,” to his class, but chose to skip past a scene with sexual content that he worried could land him in trouble.

The problem? The federal government’s guidelines initially defined sexual harassment in extremely broad language; any content of offense to anyone could be considered harassment.

Another professor who typically gives a lecture on birth control worried that the content–which could offend socially conservative students — would constitute illegal sexual harassment under the federal government’s definition.

“What if they feel that’s enough of a reason to tell me I can’t teach that class anymore?” said the professor, Michael Mayer, in a statement to the Montana Kaimin.

Mayer also said the policy could be interpreted to suggest that students and faculty members found innocent of the charge of sexual harassment should be disciplined regardless.