Harassment Guide Misguided in ScopeThose of us who are greatly concerned about free speech and harassment on campus find it ironic and sad that some fellow students, faculty, and staff insist on pitting free speech rights against concerns over various forms of harassment. There is, in fact, no fundamental conflict between these two serious issues. A clear, definitive, and harsh policy on true forms of harassment would allow the Institute to concentrate all of its limited resources on preventing violations. Instead, we have a dangerously broad and hopelessly shallow policy that both jeopardizes freedom of expression, and relies too heavily on the arbitrary interpretations of individual complaint handlers to be effective in curtailing severe cases of harassment.
Yet, in a recent letter to the editor, ["Harassment Guide is a Valuable Reference," Nov. 12] Albert L. Hsu '96 and Per E. Juvkam-Wold '94 have obviously read neither The Tech article ["Protesters Burn Harassment Book," Nov. 2] nor the harassment guide very carefully because they persist in viewing the issues in the simplistic terms of free speech versus harassment. Hsu and Juvkam-Wold wrote that some "were worried that the guide wouldn't go far enough in dealing with [harassment]," whereas those concerned about free speech "are worried that the guidebook goes so far in protecting people from harassment that it endangers the rights of others." People who are concerned about free speech are in fact worried that the guidebook goes so far in endangering the rights of others that it can't possibly protect people from harassment.
The guide lumps telling offensive jokes with physical assault or being threatened with one's job. For example, in a form for complaints in the appendix (p. 63), it actually lists "verbal" as a form of sexual assault. How can we claim to be serious about outrageous criminal actions when we trivialize them to the point of anything which has the effect of creating an offensive environment? They aren't throwing the baby out with the bath water, they've thrown the baby out and left the bath water behind!
We cannot accept the argument of vigilantes and authoritarians, that if you're really concerned about the crime you must be willing to sacrifice freedom and due process: "string 'em up now, ask questions later!" History has shown that only a commitment to reason, due process, and the rights of all, leads to a serious decline in crimes. This is because only when people know the rules and procedures to be fair, open, and just can they truly come to respect -- and abide -- by them.
Either the administration does not understand the seriousness of the activity going on, or prefers to placate the concerns of harassment victims rather than truly address them. Instead of a policy harsh and definitive in true cases of harassment, they have come up with a policy that is vague, timid, and selectively enforceable in all areas of personal interaction. They have shoved everything into the mysterious nether world of advisors and administrators, where decisions are made behind closed doors and away from scrutiny, even from the interested parties. We've seen this before. One formal committee rules one way, a dean or associate provost rules the other. End result? Who knows?
Instead of a taking a bold approach, the guide tells us to "avoid putting these essential elements [speech and civility] ... to a balancing test" (p. 18). The insinuation is clear -- in order to really do anything about one we must sacrifice the other. They've set up the straw man that speech may be in conflict with harassment because they do not understand that a person's expression of ideas -- no matter how hostile and offensive they may be -- have nothing to do with the dangerous power play that is harassment. Almost thirty years ago, students across the nation fought hard for the freedom of expression we now enjoy. Are we supposed to sit idly by while those hard won freedoms are tossed out the window like a sacrificial victim for the angry mobs?
A university is a place to be stripped of your naivet, to have heated debates, to hear your core beliefs trampled on like so much garbage. In that firestorm of conflicting ideas you find out what you truly believe, what stuck, what held up under scrutiny. You come out stronger and better able to assert yourself. That's not harassment, it's self discovery! The saddest part of all of this is, we have real people here in need of serious help. Don't make them pay by demanding a loss of freedom that will confuse the issue and won't even help them in the first place. As the saying goes, "those who would sacrifice liberty for security will lose both, and deserve neither."
Vernon Imrich G
Han Huang '94
Lars Bader G
for Freedom of Expression