The following was written by Gregory Burr, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for SFL, on behalf of the North American Executive Board. 

A Chill on Free Speech is coming to the University of Montana and other schools around the country

Students’ right to free speech is in jeopardy after the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued a broad definition of sexual harassment in a May 9 “findings letter” to the University of Montana. The departments’ description of the letter as, “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country”, indicates that the scope of the letter’s mandate goes well beyond the University of Montana and is generating concern from students and faculty across the nation. By mandating a definition of sexual harassment that is overly broad while rejecting an objective “reasonable person standard” this “blueprint” poses a systematic threat to free speech and due process. By defining sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” including “verbal conduct” the letter opens the door to the censoring of a whole realm of speech that falls under the protection of the first amendment. An unwanted request for a date could easily be considered harassment under this definition. A production of The Vagina Monologues that offends even one evangelical Christian, orthodox Jew, or devout Muslim is harassment under this definition. For those who value individual rights and due process this letter is incredibly concerning.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is now leading the charge against this affront to free speech. Each day new allies join this struggle. Already there have been articles criticizing the “blueprint” in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. By pushing back strongly against this “blueprint” we can help eradicate cases like that of University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, who was punished for harassment due to the subject matter in one of the classes he taught.

Due process, academic freedom, and free expression are vital to Student For Liberty’s goal of “A Free Academy, A Free Society”. For this reason Students For Liberty is proud to join FIRE in signing an open letter to the Departments of Justice and Education expressing our deep concern over their May 9th “blueprint”.