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Referendum Addresses Free Speech and Harassment

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

Three referendum questions addressing the protection of free speech in MIT's harassment policy are on the Undergraduate Association election ballot on Wednesday.

The questions are:

* "Should MIT guarantee its students the same freedom of speech that students have at public universities?"

* "Should students have the freedom to express unpopular or controversial views?"

* "Should the MIT harassment policy, which currently restricts constitutionally protected speech, be revised to provide protection for freedom of speech?"

A group of students, including Lars E. Bader G, collected undergraduate signatures so that these non-binding questions could appear on the ballot.

According to Bader, the purpose of these questions is to "stimulate discussion about the MIT harassment policy's speech curbs and encourage the administration to revise the policy to provide more freedom of speech."

In MIT's Policies and Procedures, sexual harassment is defined as "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."

Bader said this definition "raises serious freedom of speech concerns" because "well-intentioned people can hold views that are very offensive to each other." Similar policies at University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan were found to be unconstitutional in federal courts, he said.

Bader stressed that he does not "condone any harassment, regardless of severity." He added, "I do believe that offensive speech, unless it is deliberately offensive and directed at an individual, is not harassment. For that reason I oppose its regulation."

He outlined several recommendations to change the Institute harassment policy during his presentation to the UA Council last Monday. Bader said that one should only be punished for his speech if he intended to offend, if he continued speaking offensively after a warning, and if the speech was uninvited, not including violent and sexual threats.

Moreover, "Speech which consists only of expression of ideas and opinions, with no element of hostility and no immediately threatening nature, should not constitute harassment under MIT's policy, regardless of how `offensive' the speech is. Controversial views should not be silenced," Bader said.

He also supported a policy which would allow those who disagree with an accusation to present their view, only punish an alleged harasser if he knew his actions were unwanted, give tougher punishments in cases where harassment involved abuse of power, place rape and sexual assault under separate, stricter policies, and publish harassment guidelines.

Some say questions are biased

Undergraduate Vice President David J. Kessler '94 said he believes that the questions are phrased in a biased way. According to Kessler, the first two questions "make the issue too stark of a contrast" and do not allow student opinion. The third question "does not imply what cost is involved" in revising the harassment policy to permit complete freedom of speech.

"It makes it so that there's only one correct answer. Instead of asking for an opinion, it's looking for an answer. That's a large problem with survey questions in general," Kessler said.

Hanyoung Huang '94, who helped Bader write the referendum questions, said that whether or not the referendum is biased, "it doesn't detract from it's primary point."

"The questions are phrased to bring attention to harassment," Bader said.

Bader said he could not predict the results of the referendum: "It's quite possible some questions could lose."

However, Kessler predicted that referendum results would be an "overwhelming" yes to the three questions "because of their slant." However, he does not think the administration will be able to use the information. Because the questions are biased, they "can't be used as evidence to sway the administration one way or the other."

Bader conceded that "there is a limit on what one can do," but he hopes that the results from the referendum will give guidance to the administration. The message he hopes to get across is "we want serious cases of sexual harassment dealt with strongly, but not to mis-classify harassment."

Some students believe that the free speech questions do not really address the sexual harassment issue.

"The questions aren't relevant to the issue of sexual harassment," Kessler said. He added that the harassment policy is more a question of implementation than free speech.

Bader said that the questions were written to bring up the relationship between free speech and harassment. "It's an attempt to talk about this issue, not to exclude other issues."

He said that other than the wording of the referendum items, "the most direct feedback I've gotten has been positive." He added, "There's really not any downside to this. We want a harassment policy that protects people."