Sunday, December 17, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Harassment policy infringes on speech

Free speech lies at the core of American democracy — but maybe not the American university. Recent guidance from the Obama administration on what constitutes sexual harassment at colleges is so broad it could trigger new campus speech codes that could punish even innocuous references to sexual topics. The administration should reconsider its directive, and universities should petition for clearer, more reasonable standards.

The Education and Justice departments, responding to allegations of mishandled sexual assault cases, wrote an open letter to the University of Montana in May that set new standards for defining sexual harassment. Its provisions are intended to act as guidance for colleges nationwide. But one part of the policy broadly defines sexual harassment as "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including speech. That is far too broad.

Legal precedent now says that to show sexual harassment, a "reasonable person" must find an environment sufficiently hostile. The new Obama policy scraps that standard and means any individual — no matter how thin-skinned or reactionary — could condemn conduct as harassment. It would potentially shift campus administrators from presuming offensive speech is constitutionally protected to aggressively punishing it.

Universities cognizant of the stakes — federal funding in the form of Pell grants and Stafford loans, a costly investigation or image-damaging lawsuit — will likely feel bound by the letter. That will encourage self-censorship, or punishing people who flout the policy's standards, rather than risking the image of being a campus tolerant of sexual harassment. And the overreaction of some college administrators to sexual themes is not theoretical. Just this spring, college administrators at a New Mexico community college shut down the journalism program after students released a sex-themed issue of the campus newspaper.

Suppressing speech deemed uncomfortable also will divert resources from rooting out real harassment and sexual assaults on college campuses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 20 percent to 25 percent of college women experience attempted or completed sexual assaults. Yet 54 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to police. Preventing assaults — not censoring speech — is where college campuses should focus their energy.

The Obama administration should revisit this policy's general wording and make it consistent with the right to be free from government punishment pertaining to speech, even when it is offensive.

Comments

Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

With misconduct allegations rippling through all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott has taken the prudent step of ordering uniform sexual harassment policies throughout state agencies. The executive order strengthens protections for victims, which...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

For once, it would be nice to see Sen. Marco Rubio stand up as the independent leader he aspires to become. For once, the Florida Republican should hold his position rather than bow to pragmatic politics. Rubio can stick with his threat Thursday to v...
Published: 12/14/17

Another voice: A shameful anniversary

Josephine "Joey" Gay should have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. She should have been surrounded by friends and family in a place festooned with purple, her favorite color.Chase Kowalski should have been working toward a Boy Scout merit badge...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Published: 12/13/17

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesday’s special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17