A feminist group at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) has filed a Title IX lawsuit, alleging the college failed “to protect them from a sexually hostile school environment” and affected their “ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s educational programs.”
The College Fix reports that members of the Feminist Majority Foundation — along with its campus affiliate Feminists United and several former students —filed a lawsuit against the university and former President Richard Hurley on May 4.
According to the legal documents, the plaintiffs claimed UMW violated Title IX and the 14th Amendment by not taking sufficient action against offensive posts made on the anonymous social media app, Yik Yak.
The feminist group also claimed the messages posted to Yik Yak were “overtly sexist and/or threatening,” and by not shutting down the app on school Wi-Fi, the university fostered a sexually hostile environment, failing to “protect the Plaintiffs from [the] effects” of the offensive yaks.
A representative from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Daniel Burnett, cited that “true threats” are defined by a communication in which there is a reasonable intention to commit an act of unlawful violence, and referenced the 2003 Supreme Court case Virginia v. Black.
Furthermore, a writer on the FIRE website and program director, Susan Kruth, argued the University did not violate Title IX policies by refusing to act on comments made on Yik Yak, which was officially disabled in May.
Universities should respond to true threats and to serious allegations of sexual harassment, and they can provide non-punitive resources to people who encounter offensive speech. But to the extent that remarks are merely sexist or offensive, a public university must recognize that such language is protected under the First Amendment and decline to take unlawful steps to censor it. Throughout their complaint, the plaintiffs conflate alleged threats and a pattern of conduct that they claim deprived them of educational benefits with remarks or behavior that made them uncomfortable.
The lawsuit also cited an incident from 2014 where UMW administrators were given an audio recording of a “misogynistic chant” by the university’s rugby team. The group alleged that “no immediate action was taken by the University.”
However, Kruth wrote that UMW addressed the complaint as follows:
Aside from the posts to Yik Yak, plaintiffs demanded an institutional response to a chant — telling the story of having sex with a dead prostitute — allegedly performed by some members of the men’s rugby team at a party in November 2014. The chant did not contain threats to any groups or individuals, was not an incitement to imminent lawless action, and did not rise to the level of punishable harassment. Nevertheless, the following spring, the rugby team was dissolved. FIRE reported at the time on our concern that the public university took action against students for constitutionally protected expression, seemingly without due process.
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