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Harassment policy may infringe on rights

Column/By ANDREW L. FISH

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment has properly highlighted several flaws in MIT's current harassment policy. But the MIT administration should not, in its haste to improve MIT's harassment procedures, enact overbroad regulations which could be used to restrict legitimate forms of expression on campus.

Most of the recommendations of the committee are both positive and non-controversial improvements on the current system. The suggestion to keep careful records of harassment complaints seems long overdue. It is puzzling why an institution which prides itself on scientific thought has only allowed the use of anecdotal evidence when discussing harassment. Surely publishing aggregate data on the frequency of harassment complaints would not infringe on individuals' privacy, and systematic record keeping would allow for a more informed discussion of the issue.

The Ad Hoc Committee's call for increased educational programs on harassment should also be quickly implemented. Education is the only way to eliminate the insensitivity and ignorance which lead to harassment. The punitive measures of any policy could not deter anonymous acts of hatred like the homophobic drop poster which appeared last week [The Tech, Nov. 3]; without education, a policy's overall effectiveness in reducing harassment would likely be marginal at best. Punishment in the "court of public opinion" will be a far more effective deterrent. Hence, education should be the focus of any program to reduce harassment on campus.

While these aspects of the committee's proposal are laudable, its definition of sexual harassment is troublesome. The committee states that it goal is to provide a "clear" definition of sexual harassment. Yet, several of the committee's examples of harassment could encompass a broad range of acts and expressions.

Most of the examples are in fact clear definitions of inappropriate behavior (i.e. unwanted touching, requests for sexual favors, attempted sexual assault). But the committee offers three examples which have no clear meaning and could be used against many types of expression:

O+ sexist remarks and sexist behavior

O+ insults, including lewd, obscene, or sexually suggestive remarks or comments

O+ visual displays of degrading sexual images or pornography

These three "definitions" do little to enlighten the community as to what harassment is and clearly could be used against many legitimate forms of expression. How does one determine when behavior is sexist? If one person finds a remark sexist, does that make it so? Or does a "reasonable" person have to find it to be sexist? Or does a different standard apply? The answer to these questions cannot be found in the definition, yet the answer is essential if one is to apply the policy.

For example, last week's Lecture Series Committee poster hanging in the infinite corridor had "sexist" written over it, apparently because it did not

use gender-neutral language. Certainly, reasonable people can disagree about how the poster should be categorized. But any policy which could be used to quash this type of expression would be an illegitimate infringement on freedom of speech.

Also, the administration must recognize that "sexist" is not necessarily a politically neutral term. If one argues that admission to MIT should be based solely on standardized test scores (thereby lowering the number of women at MIT), is he or she sexist? Supporters of abortion rights claim that a segment of the anti-abortion movement is motivated by sexism or hatred of women. Does this make anti-abortion sentiment sexual harassment? The definition is silent on this issue.

The suggested definition labels insults as sexual harassment. Under such a definition, any sort of debate between individuals would be almost ludicrously chilled. Calling someone "idiotic," "knee-jerk," or "radical" should not be punishable. The definition makes no distinction among insults, so it is reasonable to assume that anything can be included under this umbrella.

Of course, the definition does not tell anyone what comprises a "degrading sexual image." There is some guidance on this point -- a poster publicizing a forum to discuss the changes said "offensive posters [and] calendars" constituted sexual harassment. Does this mean that private rooms will be searched for "offensive" calendars? The definition offers no explanation.

And if the poster is referring to swimsuit calendars as a source of degrading sexual images, the swimsuit issues of sports magazines would also be sources of harassment, as would many advertisements in magazines and newspapers. Clearly, the administration could not restrict such a wide variety of information sources on campus.

This is not to say that all forms of expression should necessarily be immune from regulation on campus. If institutionalized harassment silences a segment of the community, it limits the free exchange of ideas on campus. But any restriction on harassing speech should be drawn very narrowly and with careful consideration. The overbroad recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee clearly exceed these bounds and will serve to limit the free discourse of ideas which is essential to an academic environment.

It would be best if the administration consider the committee's proposals in two phases. It should consider the changes to the policy which will not infringe on freedom of expression first, since these should be fairly non-controversial and could be passed quickly. Only then should it decide, what, if any restriction on speech would be consistent with the open environment of the university. In this way, the administration can express its concerns about harassment without simultaneously trampling on the student's right of free expression.

who

Andrew L. Fish '89, a student at Harvard Law School, is a former editor in chief of The Tech.