March 22, 2018

Sex, Academic Librarians, and Free Speech Threats | From the Bell Tower

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?

Taking Action

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.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Tim Dodge says:

    It’s sad and absurd but I do think academic librarians and academic employees in general nowadays have to exercise extreme caution in regard to sex-related speech on campus.
    Let me note that, of course, I am totally in favor of guarding against abuses such as harassment that creates a hostile work environment or harassment that threatens employees or students with quid pro quo transactions regarding sex. I also understand that one person’s sense of humor regarding sex may constitute offense on the part of another but whatever happened to common sense and toleration for the occasional unintentional off-color comment or joke? Litigiousness and offense seems to have won the day.
    Many of us have probably heard about if not directly encountered situations where a claim of sexual harassment in an academic and/or academic library setting is unfair if not ridiculous. One of the problems is that accusations of sexual harassment can be career-destroying. Even if the alleged perpretator is vindicated, his (or her) reputation is likely to be in tatters for years to come.
    I recall working at a university in the Northeast over 20 years ago and hearing about the travails of a distinguished English Literature professor accused of making sexually offensive remarks in one of his classes. The upshot was something like a year of lawsuits and threats of dismissal from his job, before a final decision cleared his name and reputation (and saved his job). My understanding is that he had used one or more sexual metaphors in a class lecture to illustrate a point.
    More amusing but still threatening to intellectual freedom is an incident that occurred at my own library in the mid-1990’s. I’m located in the Bible Belt, so perhaps it’s not surprising that a patron took offense at finding a book concerning erotic art on the bookshelves. The sensible reply by the then Head of the Humanities and General Reference Department was that a) erotic art is a legitimate subject of intellectual inquiry, b) this is a large academic library, and c) that the words “Erotic Art” were prominently displayed on the cover. If the patron found the idea of erotic art offensive, he/she had no need to open up the book to find “offensive” images therein.
    Finally, it occurs to me that this issue of sexual harassment could be committed in reverse: that a student could unintentionally offend a librarian or library employee by asking a reference question of a sexual nature. When I was working at an academic library in the mid-1980’s in Florida, I was approached by a young woman who had some very detailed and, to me, slightly embarrassing questions concerning the functioning of the male reproductive system. I believe she may have been a Nursing student and, most likely, she would have preferred to get assistance from a female reference librarian but I was the only one on duty that evening. Being a young, single male still in his twenties at the time I recall feeling both quite embarrassed but also a bit titillated. However, in my role as a professional librarian, I treated her inquiry dispassionately and helped her identify several academic articles about her topic. I mention this little episode only to indicate that the issue of sexual harassment in academic libraries and on campus can potentially be initiated by the student as well as the librarian or professor.
    I wish common sense, mutual toleration, and, yes, a sense of humor were the answer to this vexing question. With some sadness, I think we do indeed need to be somewhat on our guard when it comes to any mention of sex in today’s academic world including the library.