The sexual harassment scandals involving prominent Hollywood figures, media personalities and politicians has brought heightened awareness to the issue, but one public college appears to be taking things too far. At Tennessee State University in Nashville, “whistling in a suggestive manner” may qualify as sexual harassment and can get students expelled or employees fired. Those caught making “suggestive or insulting sounds” or making “suggestive or obscene gestures” also face similar consequences as well as students or staff who joke about sex on campus.
The rules are outlined in the university’s discrimination and harassment policy, which was obtained by a conservative journalism nonprofit dedicated to the principles of a free society. The group published an article on its website that reveals Tennessee State University has been blasted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for several policies that allow free speech to be punished as harassment. With an undergraduate enrollment of about 7,000, the school’s policy lists nearly two dozen “offenses” that can constitute sexual harassment among students and employees. Cases are determined individually and the “totality of the circumstances” will be considered before deciding if sexual harassment has been committed.
The attorney who serves as vice president of FIRE’s policy research points out in the article that Tennessee State University’s policy doesn’t pass legal muster because it’s too ambiguous. Her name is Samantha Harris and she has degrees from two Ivy League universities, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Very broad categories of speech are banned as harassment, simply because someone might find them suggestively offensive and that’s something that courts have repeatedly held violates the first amendment,” Harris says in the story. Prohibitions on jokes and humor are dangerous because they could be abused to suppress unpopular speech involving political and social issues, Harris added. She also said that the school’s policy of banning any kind of demonstration during university events restricts students’ rights to protest and get their message across. Tennessee State also requires gatherings involving dissent to be registered with the vice president of student affairs to ensure the event is held at an acceptable time and appropriate site. That creates prior restraint on speech, according to FIRE’s legal expert.
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