When publishers sue librarians over legitimate critiques, we can all agree that’s a threat to our academic freedom. It’s another thing when the federal government refers to a vague “blueprint” for controlling sex-related speech on campus. Campus information experts may be able to help.
Consequences of a sexual harassment claim are so damaging that any reasonably sensible academic librarian would avoid sexual references, innuendos, humor, or contact in almost any campus interaction. That includes both what happens in the classroom and office. Given the almost infinite number of research examples that a librarian educator could employ, intentionally selecting any sex-related topic, even a legitimate topic such as sex trafficking, presents a questionable choice. One never knows for sure how any student might respond. Is proving your freedom to choose any topic worth the hassle of being accused of subjecting a student to language or images that made him or her feel harassed? Unless an instructor specifically asks a librarian to use a topic that is sexual in nature, then it might be wise to avoid it entirely. While that may strike us as extremely unfortunate, and perhaps even cowardly, avoiding sexual topics may simply be smart educating in an environment where the federal government seeks to enforce speech code rules so broad and vague in nature that almost any sexual reference could lead to trouble.
A Real Threat?
At first it was unclear what to make of an email that shared a letter from an organization of which I had never heard, setting off alarms about a threat to free speech that went completely unreported in any higher education news resource I follow. An organization known as FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, issued a press release that was picked up by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. FIRE describes itself as “leading the fight against unconstitutional speech codes on America’s college campuses.” FIRE’s dire warning about a new insidious threat to free speech on campus concerned events that transpired at the University of Montana at Missoula. Not knowing much about FIRE, and nothing at all about what happened at this university, there was ambiguity about the seriousness of the message’s claim that an intended blueprint shaped jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice would “mandate a breathtakingly broad definition of sexual harassment that makes virtually every student in the United States a harasser while ignoring the First Amendment.” Was FIRE blowing things out of proportion, or was this a true threat to free speech on campus?
Seeking the Facts
So what does one do when encountering claims of this type? The U.S. government did issue the letter, but there was no real sense of how serious the matter was, how pervasive some new ruling might be, or when it might happen. The few messages I saw from others in the library community offered no help in determining the depth of the threat. Efforts to gather additional information yielded little results, and FIRE was the source of anything else discovered. Quite the mystery. My thinking was that if this issue was as serious as FIRE claimed, then surely the higher education news would report about it within the next day or two. I later discovered the Chronicle did report the news before I even became aware of the issue. Looking back at that article, there didn’t seem all that much of real concern. What we do know is that the two federal agencies were responding to the inappropriate and ineffective handling of multiple reports of sexual assault at the University of Montana at Missoula. On May 10, the publication Minding the Campus featured a story about the government’s letter to the University of Montana that first revealed the recommended speech code changes. Who wrote that piece? The same folks from FIRE. Eventually more commentators began to pick up on the case, so over a two week period, more details and perspectives began to emerge. For me, this additional attention signaled that this was a matter worth our attention.
From the Academic Library Perspective
If this new blueprint for speech codes comes to pass, the significant change is that even a verbal expression of a sexual nature could be punishable as sexual harassment. If FIRE’s interpretation is correct, it could potentially extend to something a librarian, faculty member, or guest speaker may read from a book found in the campus library. It would most certainly be a threat to any academic librarian who, for whatever reason, needed to broach a sex-related topic shared in an educational context. No matter how academically or respectfully it might be handled, accusations may follow. According to FIRE “if the listener takes offense to sexually related speech for any reason, no matter how irrationally or unreasonably, the speaker may be punished.” Even if this comes to pass, though it’s hard to believe it would do so without much resistance—but stranger things happen in higher education—then it only means you need to be aware of the threat. An academic librarian could still choose to engage students on a sex-related topic. It would only be a problem if a student wanted to report it as a case of sexual harassment. I suspect most would be unlikely to do so, and we probably have a sense of how our student culture might respond, but one never knows for sure what passes for offensive language. Is it worth suffering through a claim of sexual harassment?
Even when we are diligent practitioners of keeping up with events in higher education, an important component of being a knowledgeable academic librarian, we will still encounter situations like this one where too little information leads only to uncertainty. Knowing how to respond or act is a challenge, and perhaps all we can do is wait and see what develops next. As academic librarians, we should view ourselves as having a special role within our communities, particularly where intellectual freedom is threatened, to detect, analyze, and share what we know with our community members, so that they too are alert and better equipped to respond. What we choose to do, as a library staff, is perhaps worthy of a broader conversation. Even individually, we might regard ourselves as both antennae and beacon. First, we pick up the signal, and then we broadcast it out to the community. It is but one more way in which academic librarians provide value to their institutions.