The University Record, March 29, 1993

Harassment policy must strike delicate balance

By Mary Jo Frank

A faculty committee drafting a new faculty discriminatory harassment policy is attempting to balance the University’s legal and moral obligations to provide equal educational opportunity to all and First Amendment rights to free speech, according to Elizabeth S. Anderson, assistant professor of philosophy.

Leading a discussion on what needs to be covered in a faculty discriminatory harassment policy at the March 15 Senate Assembly meeting, Anderson said any such policy must have a clear statement regarding faculty rights and academic freedom.

Academic freedom, she said, requires the free and open discussion of controversial ideas. She also noted that the University must promote equality of opportunity, and that free and rational inquiry can sometimes be deterred or “chilled” by intimidating or harassing faculty speech.

Anderson said the faculty committee working on the draft is inclined to include under the definition of discriminatory harassment threats of violence, the use of insulting or fighting words, and specific attacks on individuals that deter or discredit their participation in University activities.

She offered the following example of what the committee would consider discriminatory harassment:

A faculty member, in discussing the shape of a bell curve, referred to the shape of a particular woman student’s breast. Anderson said the committee considers such a remark stigmatizing and humiliating.

Who is to judge if words are insulting or deterring? Anderson said the committee is inclined to accept a “community standards” criterion, that is, whether a reasonable member of the community being attacked would judge the words stigmatizing or would be deterred from participating upon hearing them.

Other issues under consideration, according to Anderson, include:

—Where to draw the line between faculty actions calling for remedial action or education and actions calling for punishment.

—How to protect the expression of controversial ideas that make individuals uncomfortable.

Working with Anderson on drafting a new faculty discriminatory harassment policy are George D. Cameron III, professor of business law; Juan R. Cole, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies; and Philip M. Margolis, professor of psychiatry.