Dangerously Vague Sexual Assault Policies

Yesterday, Swarthmore’s Dean of Students Liz Braun officially notified the community of the College’s updated sexual assault procedures.  According to the Interim Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy:

This policy prohibits a broad continuum of behaviors, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, physical assault, bullying, intimidation and retaliation, stalking, and indecent exposure. The College will respond according to the severity or pervasiveness of the offense and the threat it poses to the community.

The writers at the Independent are wary that this revised policy is much too broad and that such a behavioral “continuum” is restrictive of student free speech rights. We join the rest of the Swarthmore campus in our concern for sexual assault victims and a desire for a safe learning environment. However, the College’s failure to carefully define sexual assault and misconduct for legal purposes undermines the freedom of our educational environment and actually makes it harder to respond to crime on campus in an efficient and equitable manner. The Foundation for Independent Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Swarthmore’s previous speech codes a “red light” because the College’s over-broad assault and misconduct policies were in violation of the First Amendment. There is no reason to believe that the interim policy has changed things. In fact, the College’s reliance on “broad terms designed to capture a spectrum of behavior” renders the interim guidelines even more vague.

As Nico Perrion, a staffer at FIRE, reminds us in his August 15 letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Colleges have a moral and legal obligation to seriously address sexual misconduct on campus, but not to abandon the First Amendment to do so.”

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