The sexual-harassment policy at the University of New Orleans is so broad that it may effectively ban students from sending each other valentines.
According to an article in The College Fix, the school’s policy bans a whole host of things as “sexual harassment,” such as “unwanted sexual advances” (which includes “touching”), “visual displays such as leering,” “gratuitous visual displays such as posters, photographs, cartoons, drawings, or gestures” (which I’d assume could easily include many episodes of South Park), “graphic sexual commentary about an individual’s body” (with, as The Fix puts it, “no requirement” that the person whose body it is “even know about it”), and — here’s where Valentine’s Day comes in — “sending suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations.”
A pro-free-speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, highlighted the university’s policy as its February Speech Code of the Month.
“The policy’s list of examples fails to note that individual examples are only punishable when they actually meet the legal standard for peer hostile environment harassment in the educational setting, as set forth by the Supreme Court,” FIRE stated in its post. “As a result, those examples look like they’re prohibited when standing alone, creating a chilling effect on protected expression.”
Laura Beltz, FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform, talked with The Fix about how the policy might lead to students’ being too afraid to send each other valentines.
“If students are left wondering if sending a valentine will land them in trouble, the university is not living up to its legal obligation to protect students’ free speech rights,” she stated in an email.
Beltz explained that the policy should instead explain that “suggestive” notes — which could, of course, easily include valentines — must be “part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment,” because, as it stands, the policy may lead students to “self-censor or think twice before sending a valentine.”
Beltz is absolutely correct. As it stands, the anti-harassment policy at the University of New Orleans could certainly be interpreted as one that bans any and all valentines. The term “suggestive,” after all, is a subjective one. Sure, some might interpret it as encompassing only things that are truly pornographic, but others could interpret it far more broadly. In fact, someone in the administration could easily say that common notes on valentines such as “Be mine” or “Be my Valentine” qualify as “suggestive” — and no student should be at risk of getting into real trouble over such a subjective standard. I highly doubt that receiving a simple “Be mine” valentine would be enough to send any adult student into a tailspin, as long as the valentine was not part of a pattern of actual harassment. How do I know this? Because grade-school kids hand out valentines to each other, and they seem to be able to handle it just fine. In fact, I remember having received a few myself as young as first grade, and I managed to escape without any resulting emotional trauma. Sexual harassment is an awful, traumatic thing, and schools should definitely have policies in place to protect students against it. They shouldn’t, however, make those policies so broad and open to subjective interpretation that it threatens their students’ free-speech rights.