Saturday, November 1, 2014

Detail on the Law Professors' Objections to Harvard's Sexual Harassment Policy

Janet Halley, Royall Professor at Harvard Law School and one of the 28 who signed the letter cited in my previous blog post, has written a detailed memo on the issues. Here is the preface:
Today colleges and universities around the country enjoy a moment of special opportunity: a chance to change slipshod, dismissive and actively malign handling of sexual harassment claims, and to offer genuine remedies for victims. But it is also a moment of danger: because one such remedy involves discipline for wrongdoers, the rules must define misconduct to include the conduct we want to sanction and deter (and not socially valuable or unharmful behavior), and to process complaints in a way that is fair to all parties. The new University Policy and Procedures realize these dangers: they provide an overly broad definition of sexual harassment, far beyond anything that federal courts recognize; they trench directly on academic freedom and freedom of speech; they threaten stigmatized minorities with unjustifiable findings of responsibility; they will rush low-income students who cannot afford counsel to unfair judgment; and they are defective on every known scale of equal procedural treatment of the parties and due process.
This memo is written in the spirit of improving Harvard‘s approach to sexual harassment discipline. It is premised on my firm belief that we can provide a full and robust response to complaints while also guarding vigilantly against ratifying frivolous claims, damaging academic freedom, harming stigmatized minorities, depriving accused students of the support they need, and violating the due process and equality rights of the parties to these disputes.
A crucial meta-argument is not about the policy per se but about the process by which it came into being and the presumption that "we had to do it, the feds were holding a gun to our head." Professor Halley writes,
This memo is thus addressed to an unclear situation. University officials have acceded to mandates from federal regulators that, in my view and the view of many others, were adopted without proper procedures and lack any grounding in the statutes that the regulators are charged with enforcing. As I attempt to show in Parts I and II of this memorandum, many of these mandates, and hence many of the resulting provisions of the University Policy and Procedures, offend basic principles of fairness – what you could call constitutional values. But it is often said that the University and its sub-entities are without choice in installing and implementing these policies. This claim presents our community choices of a different kind, ones that may have Big C Constitutional implications.
In responding to government pressure in the current crisis, institutions of higher education – Harvard included – bear responsibility for far more than sheer compliance with federal regulators inventing ever-new requirements in the name of sexual harassment enforcement. They bear responsibility for victim protection and redress, justice for all parties, due process for the accused as well as complainants. They must protect not only women but also other vulnerable minorities. They must advance, not undermine, the cause of free speech and academic freedom; must preserve respect for the autonomy and privacy of adults in their relationships; and must think not only in punitive but also in public health terms about harmful cultural practices among our students. All of this can be done without giving up the current opportunity to make protection and redress for victims of sexual harassment far better than it has been in the past.
Thanks to Professor Halley for inviting me to link to her memo.

So here is a crucial question. To resist, must a university wait until the feds have charged it with some specific malfeasance as a result of a Title IX complaint -- which if true, would be a very unattractive proposition, risking huge amounts of federal funding under circumstances when there would be enormous public sympathy for the complaint against it? Or could it pro-actively protest on principle, and, without any presenting complaint against it, seek to have statutes, regulations, and executive dicta overturned because it thought it was being unlawfully or even unconstitutionally required to comply with them?

I am trying to get a clear answer to that question.

In the meantime, it is interesting to note that much of the meta-argument of certain FAS faculty about the adoption of the new health benefit policies is exactly the same: The policy was adopted too quickly and without adequate consultation, not merely with the rank and file of faculty and students but with members of the faculty who would bring nationally recognized expertise to the deliberations. (NB: Professor Mary Lewis, who will on Tuesday formally move that the FAS ask that the new policies be suspended, is not related to me.)

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