A joint letter from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education to the University of Montana earlier this month signals a stepped-up federal initiative to combat sexual assault and harassment on college campuses. While the problems are undeniably real, the government's proposed solutions may jeopardize such basic values as free speech and protections for the accused.
The letter, which follows a review of that university's response to sexual harassment and assault, explicitly states that its recommendations are a "blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country." This is not just friendly advice from Uncle Sam: Schools that don't comply may lose federal funding.
The guidelines depart from earlier norms in several important ways. "Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," physical or verbal, is deemed actionable regardless of if it is severe or pervasive enough to limit educational or work opportunities (the legal standard for sexual harassment). Indeed, colleges are specifically warned to act before offensive conduct rises to such levels. Any requirement that such conduct be "objectively offensive" -- even to a "reasonable person of the same gender" -- is deemed unacceptable. Subjective perceptions must be taken into account as well.