Alabama A&M University’s sexual harassment policy bans making “verbal comments related to an individual’s age” under certain circumstances.
According to the policy, these sorts of comments are a violation if the “conduct has the purpose of effect of interfering with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” Oh, and age is far from the only topic that’s off-limits. The policy also bans “verbal comments related to . . . race, gender, color, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation.”
Now, your first inclination might be to think that this sort of policy isn’t a huge deal. After all, the only time these things are banned is when they impact work performance or create “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.” Certainly, if someone were repeatedly being chased around campus while someone screamed, for example, “You’re so old! Why are you so old, you nasty old person? Die already!” then I could definitely see how that would be considered harassment. Here’s the problem, though: Words like “offensive” and “hostile” and “intimidating” are incredibly subjective. Maybe, for example, someone happens to be intimidated by birthday wishes. According to this policy, a student wishing that student a happy 21st birthday would be enough for the well-wisher to be found guilty of harassment on the grounds that they’d said something “related to an individual’s age” that was “intimidating.” It may sound crazy, but I’ve seen crazier things happening on campuses these days.
The policy also bans “insulting” gestures as well as sending “annoying” or “offensive” messages on the campus network. In other words: Apparently, these college kids aren’t allowed to flip each other off, which should seem pretty insane to anyone who has ever been around a college kid ever. As for the ban on “annoying” messages? Damn, if I went to this school, I’d be being found guilty of harassment pretty much every day. I don’t even want to think about how many messages I send my friends when they’re on their way to my apartment, asking them how close they are. In fact, I’m pretty sure that every message I’ve ever sent anyone has been annoying. I’d be in constant trouble.
Harassment is a very serious issue, and there should certainly be policies in place to prohibit it. Policies that are far too broad, however, don’t help matters — and they actually might do some harm. Even if the college isn’t actually punishing people for wishing other people a happy birthday (which I assume the school wouldn’t be actually crazy enough to do) the environment that these kinds of policies create in themselves is not a healthy or productive one. Why? Because the very existence of such strict rules could be enough to prevent students from speaking freely. This is a tragedy, because college is supposed to be a place where people can learn, and part of learning is engaging with different thoughts and ideas. If a college really wants its students to succeed, it should make sure that it’s providing an environment that allows for growth — and certainly not creating one that stifles it.