Created on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 21:22
A non-profit watchdog organization has given Appalachian State University a “red light” rating for its sexual harassment policy.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) surveyed the policies at 392 public and private four-year institutions. Out the schools surveyed, nearly two thirds received “red light” ratings for at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts free speech.
Linda Foulsham, Appalachian’s director of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance, said the rating was baseless.
“The red light rating is unwarranted,” Foulsham said. “FIRE has a narrow interpretation of an educational institution’s responsibility to prevent and address sexual harassment on campus, which is not supported by state and federal law or the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.”
Senior exercise science major Austin Annas said he does not agree with the FIRE rating of the policy.
“I believe organizations [like FIRE] are generally looking to pick a fight,” Annas said. “Freedom of speech is certainly a valued component of any democratic society and therefore, any infringement of that right on a college campus or elsewhere should be investigated. That being said, I believe Appalachian does a great job in following national and state law guidelines.”
Appalachian’s sexual harassment policy prohibits such student expression as “commenting inappropriately on someone’s appearance,” “repeatedly requesting dates from someone who clearly isn’t interested” and “sexual innuendos and comments.”
Sophomore creative writing major Evan Gray said he felt Appalachian’s policy might not be adequate.
“I feel like there are a lot of circumstances where something is said in a friendly or comedic tone that you reflect back upon and wonder if someone could have deemed it offensive,” Gray said. “Also, a vague and broad harassment policy could lead to a student’s inability to voice their opinions on controversial topics without the fear of foregoing litigation.”
FIRE’s report follows the same line of reasoning. Its website states that “if a university does not elaborate on what it means by offensive, or if its regulations do not specifically say that pure, unrepeated speech cannot constitute a violation, then the policy could easily be used to silence protected expression.”
FIRE’s report also defines student-on-student harassment as “conduct so severe, pervasive or objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”
Foulsham said that Appalachian’s policy coincides with this definition and that students would only be found to violate the sexual harassment policy here if their conduct met those guidelines.
Senior exercise science major Austin Annas said he felt the rating was unnecesary.
“If [Appalachian] is following the rule of law and providing a comprehensive process for settling allegations of student-on-student harassment, then it seems clear to me that FIRE’s bad rating is unwarranted,” Annas said.
Recent updates to state and federal law regulate the way allegations of harassment are reported and investigated.
Foulsham said Appalachian has taken note of these changes and is currently taking further steps to improve its harassment and discrimination policies, pursuant to the updates.
“These changes will provide a consistent process for reporting and investigating complaints of harassment and discrimination from students, faculty and staff,” she said.
For more information, view the harassment policy at edc.appstate.edu/harassment-and-discrimination.
For more information on FIRE, visit thefire.org.
Story: DUSTIN FLANARY, Intern News Reporter