DOJ waves away free speech, privacy at U. Montana

Robby Soave Reporter
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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.

“What they’re saying is you can be found innocent and still have an action brought against you … it’s just Orwellian,” he said.

Another complaint against the guidelines is that they require teachers to attend training seminars — and those who miss out will have their names sent to the DOJ. The agreement between the government and the university states that “the University will provide the United States with the sign-in sheets of each employee by name and job title for each training required… and a list of any University employee who failed to participate in such training by name and title.”

When asked about this aspect of the guidelines, UM President Royce Engstrom said he did not realize government officials were requiring this when he agreed to their demands, and said he would work to alter the policy.

Susan Kruth, a free speech expert at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote that while Engstrom’s support of employees’ privacy was admirable, he should have had a better understanding of the guidelines before he agreed to them.

“While we are certainly happy that President Engstrom is now working to resolve this aspect of the agreement, we can’t help but think that he might have been able to more swiftly and effectively address the ‘inappropriateness’ of infringing on students’ and professors’ rights before his signature made the resolution a legally binding document,” she wrote on FIRE’s blog, The Torch.

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