Report raises concerns:
Some question implication for free speech
By Andrea Lamberti
Discussion of the The Report of the MIT Committee on Sexual Harassment, released in October, has included both praise for the committee for addressing the issue and concern about the report's treatment of freedom of speech and due process.
Most agree harassment has become an increasingly important issue with the rising percentage of women on campus and the view that the number and severity of incidents of harassment have increased. However, several members of the community have raised questions about what they view as the harassment committee's disregard for freedom of speech and due process for those accused of sexual harassment.
The report includes a revised Institute policy on harassment, which the Faculty Policy Committee and the Academic Council have already passed, according
to Associate Provost Samuel J. Keyser, chair of the committee.
The remainder of the eight-page report consists of recommendations for decreasing, if not eliminating, sexual harassment at MIT. "The committee recommendations fall into three major sections: policy, education and prevention, and procedures," the report states.
Parts of the community have already responded to the report by implementing workshops and discussions. And in mid-October, former Provost John M. Deutch '61, who convened the committee and charged it with strengthening the former policy on sexual harassment in November 1989, suggested that several of the re
port's recommendations be made permanent.
He recommended that the policy go into the formal Policies and Procedures book, that statistics be kept, that Keyser compile a formal list of mediators, and that the new definition of sexual harassment be incorporated into the basic rules and regulations for approved MIT living groups. He also requested that discussions be initiated on campus, and that the procedures for education and prevention of harassment be disseminated throughout campus.
Some feel policy may
constrain free speech
At the faculty meeting Nov. 28, Professor of Philosophy Judith J. Thomson, who first expressed concerns about the harassment report in a letter to Faculty Chair Henry D. Jacoby, said the report's treatment of free speech and due process for those accused of sexual harassment "proved worrisome."
The revised policy includes a definition of harassment. "Harassment is any conduct, verbal or physical, on or off campus, which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's or group's educational or work performance at MIT or which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational, work or living environment," the report states.
It also states that, in punishing someone for sexual harassment, that sanctions may be applied "up to and including termination of employment or student status."
Based on the definition, Thomson said in the letter that an intent to offend is not required to convict someone of harassment. "It is enough to trigger the possibility of the imposition of sanctions that an instance of speech have the `effect of unreasonable interfering' with someone's performance at MIT, or that it `creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive . . . environment.' "
And based on the definition
of sexual harassment for MIT-approved living groups, part of which reads, "Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to . . . sexist remarks, slogans and behavior that demean persons based on their gender or sexual preference. . . ." Thomson said any remark that might be construed as sexist, "whatever its intention, and whatever the context, . . . therefore opens the speaker to a charge of harassment and to the possible imposition of sanctions."
Thomson noted that "There are First Amendment objections that would obviously be in order if MIT were a public university." The language of the committee's definition of harassment, she added in the letter, is similar
to some of the language in the University of Michigan's anti-discrimination policy which a United States district court declared unconstitutional.
However, Maya F. Paczuski G, a member of the committee and a member of the 1989 Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment, said the University of Michigan policy was much more restrictive than MIT's.
Paczuski also said that the debate of constraining free speech too often becomes an abstract argument, and any discussion of free speech in connection with discrimination or harassment must take into account concrete examples and the damage inflicted on the receivers of harassment. "[It is a] real phenomenon that affects real people in an adverse way," she said.
Adam Dershowitz G, a campus free-speech advocate, felt that people will respond to the new definitions by limiting their speech in fear of repercussions, even if what they want to say couldn't be called sexual harassment. "The definitions are so broad that anything will be construed as harassment," he said. "People will worry about what they say for fear of punishment, even if they don't intend anything."
"What is a problem," Dershowitz added, "is people don't know what is and what isn't harassment. [The committee's] solution is to include everything that could possibly be construed as sexual harassment and to go well beyond that, including things that are clearly not sexual harassment."
In response to the concerns raised for protecting free speech, Keyser questioned the need for members of the community to exercise their right to call someone a name, for example, "even if they have the right under freedom of speech."
The community has to agree that even if people "have the right . . . to use certain phrases, they need to understand that the use of those phrases is hurtful, and . . . one ought not exercise that right," he said.
Keyser said it is possible that parts of the report in question may be reworded in response to concerns such as these. "[The Faculty Policy Committee] is going to take that up," he said.
However, Andrew P. Strehle '91, a member of FPC, said the discussion of these issues is not on the agenda for this month, and the agenda for next semester has not yet been set. He felt that those concerned about the report's language should speak with Keyser, because the FPC is usually the "last stop" for reports before they go to the floor of the faculty.
Strehle also said that FPC discussions of the report in November focused mainly on the process surrounding an incident of harassment, and did not directly address free speech in connection with the report.
A need for community
Both Keyser and Strehle said the MIT community would be the force behind the free speech issue, forcing more discussion to take place. "I think that the report is going to engender an awful lot of discussion; but I also think that that's a pretty good thing," Keyser said. "[The] community really needs to be sensitized to what it is that's hurtful to other members."
Above all, Keyser felt that the "community needs to stop harassing," and that everyone in the community needs to know what constitutes harassment and what they can do if they encounter it.
Manish Bapna '91, president of the Undergraduate Association, also felt the community would address the issue of free speech. "I think right now the campus is still quite sensitive, and the issue of free speech is going to come up."
Thomson and Professor of Philosophy James T. Higginbotham also expressed concern about the way in which the report was approved and acted upon before it was presented to the community and to the faculty. "Everything was prepared, advanced and approved before ever having been brought for comments to the faculty," Higginbotham said. "I think the report could have been better if it had gone through wider discussion beforehand."
Thomson felt similarly, and said so in her letter to Jacoby. "What triggered this letter is my dismay at the fact that the senior administration appears to have already adopted the policies proposed in this report" before inviting the faculty to comment at a regular faculty meeting, she said in the letter.
In an attempt to further discussion on the issues of sexual harassment and gender relations on campus, at least two Institute colloquia are planned for next semester, Bapna said.
Bapna felt that the impact of the report would be felt through its implementation. "[The] issue now is how to implement many of the recommendations . . . and how much motivation the Institute has in making sure" the problem is addressed and how to resolve it as best as possible.
Bapna felt the report was quite thorough in addressing the issue of sexual harassment. He felt that discussion on campus and events such as teach-ins could foster discussion. "It's really an Institute problem. [The difficulty is to get different parts of the Institute] together to discuss the problem."
Rebecca D. Kaplan '92, a member of the Association for Women Students, also gave the report a positive response. "Basically I think it's a really good proposal, and I really hope they do move on it," she said.