DOE Requires Universities to Curb Online Sexual Harassment

WASHINGTON

Schools have the same obligation to respond to sexual harassment in cyberspace that they have when the harassment occurs in the classroom – according to a first of it’s kind ruling this month from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

“This means that sexual harassment, such as the vile behavior we’ve all heard about that takes place on websites like juicycampus.com, is forbidden under Title IX even though it doesn’t technically occur ‘on campus'”, said noted civil-rights attorney Wendy Murphy.  Murphy who brought the complaint earlier this year on behalf of a sexual assault victim attending college in the northeast who had been subjected to literally hundreds of sexually explicit and sexist comments on the now closed gossip site.

Title IX requires gender equity in all educational programs that receive federal funding. Among other things, gender equity means that schools and colleges must take “prompt and equitable” and “effective” steps to eliminate sexual harassment on campus.

This standard has long been interpreted to include things like sexually explicit, sexist and offensive comments made in a classroom or physically posted on campus, but OCR told Murphy this is the first instance of these rules being applied to statements and posts made in a public forum in cyberspace.

“Sexist and derogatory statements about women on these gossip sites are especially egregious because they are usually done anonymously, which makes it hard to fight back against the person making the remarks,” said S. Daniel Carter, Director of Public Policy at Security On Campus, Inc. a non-profit campus safety advocacy organization where Murphy is an Advisory Board member.

“This much anticipated ruling makes it clear that schools in the 21st Century must take the same steps to protect women on campus whether the harassment is written on a dorm room door or on a blog in cyberspace.”

Murphy said that although OCR didn’t find that the college itself responded inappropriately in this case, it’s not unusual for OCR to write a decision the way they did – announcing a new important principle of law, while deferring judgment on the specifics of the case.  “You almost can’t blame the school for its inaction, because, to be fair, there hadn’t been a ruling in the past making it clear that they had an obligation to stop the harassment of female students on gossip sites in cyberspace.

“The goal was never to punish the school, but to use the case as a way of gaining a clear determination from the Department of Education as to whether schools are obligated to respond at all to this sort of sexist and offensive behavior”.  Murphy added, “this has been serious problem on campuses for several years, and it was getting worse because school officials were not responding to student complaints.  With this unprecedented ruling in place, my client, like all women students nationwide who have suffered from harassment at these websites, will head to campus in a few weeks with a new and powerful tool to fight back.”

“It remains to be seen whether an ‘effective’ response means schools must shut down these sites altogether, or whether they can take some lesser steps to prevent harassment.  But one thing is for sure, schools will be developing new policies and procedures now that they know for sure they have a duty under Title IX to take action”, said Mr. Carter.

“The websites aren’t only about sexual gossip involving women.  If the gossip sites facilitate any other form of harassment against students based on race, religion, ethnicity or any other protected class status, schools have a similar responsibility under parallel federal regulations, to stop the behavior,” said Murphy.

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Security On Campus Aug. 11 press release

Security On Campus, Inc. (SOC) was founded in 1987 by Jeanne Clery’s parents, Connie and Howard, after she was raped and murdered in her on-campus residence hall at college, by a fellow student whom she did not know. SOC worked to secure passage of the Jeanne Clery Act, originally known as the Campus Security Act, in 1990. The landmark federal law requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campus. The Act also includes the Federal Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights. Please visit www.securityoncampus.org for more information.

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