The new policy outlined in the University of Montana agreement comes in response to campus exposés about lax enforcement of sexual harassment rules, the signing by President Obama in March of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act to make it easier to report sex crimes on campus, and a series of probes by the Department of Education into major universities that have allegedly failed to properly address sexual harassment and assault allegations.
To be sure, the new rules still require that sex crime allegations suggest either pervasive or severe acts or language, and still require an objective standard before allegations are upheld, according to the Department of Education’s letter to the University of Montana.
But campus free speech advocates have balked at those explanations, saying the policy could have a chilling impact on social, professional, even political dynamics on US college campuses. Critics say any sexual topic, including flirtation, sex ed classes, or a discussion of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” could be deemed “unwelcome” and the basis for censure.
Such fears aren’t theoretical, campus free speech advocates say, citing a professor at the University of Denver who was found to have sexually harassed students by talking about sexual taboos in American culture.
“Unwelcome” speech has also been used in allegations of teachers creating a “hostile environment,” which apparently happened to a professor at Purdue University at Calumet who last year faced investigation for criticizing on Facebook the failure by moderate Muslims to condemn violence by Islamic extremists.