I’m going to put this up front, just in case someone decides to misreport what I write: No, the University of New Orleans is not banning Valentine’s Day cards over fears of sexual harassment.
The university’s speech code, however, could include Valentine’s Day cards as evidence of sexual harassment if someone reports they received a “suggestive” card from someone they do not like.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education each month highlights the speech code of one university. In February, the organization is highlighting UNO because its broadly worded sexual harassment policy includes and list of examples that include “[s]ending suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations.” Such things may be found on Valentine’s Day cards, and given this country’s current moral panic over sexual assault and sexual harassment, a simple card could leave some lovestruck Lothario – or even a decent guy who misread some signals – on the wrong side of a campus kangaroo court.
[T]he “Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation” policy at the University of New Orleans says examples of sexual harassment include “[s]ending suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations,” among other types of conduct. The policy’s list of examples fails to note that individual examples are only punishable when they actually meet the legal standard for peer hostile environment harassment in the educational setting, as set forth by the Supreme Court. As a result, those examples look like they’re prohibited when standing alone, creating a chilling effect on protected expression.
FIRE’s Laura Beltz writes that many colleges and universities write their speech and sexual misconduct policies this way, “providing a definition of harassment (to varying levels of success at tracking that Supreme Court’s harassment standard), but then listing out a multitude of examples that include speech that wouldn’t meet that standard when standing alone.”
Beltz notes that its helpful for schools like UNO to provide examples of what could be considered sexual harassment, but writes that policies must make clear that each example is not “banned across the board and punishable on its own.”
As an example, Beltz points to the University of North Florida, which notes in its policies that individual examples of misconduct could be punishable on its own if severe and pervasive enough, but typically must be part of a larger pattern that meets the school’s definition of harassment.
Good advice for students this Valentine’s Day: Be careful what you write on cards or notes or letters, as what may seem innocuous to one person may seem harmful to another.
The card could be used to punish a student for sexual harassment, even if the card was not intended as such. Being in a committed relationship doesn’t make this any less of a problem, as cards can be saved for future accusations.
We’re living through a moral panic where all it takes is an accusation for someone to be considered a victim. There are many people out there who are socially awkward and may be misreading signals from a potential partner. Be very careful this Valentine’s Day.