Fear Factory: Sexual Harassment and the Rights of the Accused

Jonathan Bean

Editor's note: This is a guest post by Jonathan Bean. To read NAS's statement, "Sexual Harassment and Academic Freedom," click here.

Are you an employer who would like to effectively police your workforce? Instill fear that any misstep (real or imagined) could lead to dismissal, removal from the workplace, or mandatory "sensitivity training"? 

Don't waste money on some high-priced consultant. Simply go to the web site of your local university and look up "Sexual Harassment Policies and Procedures."

Voila! For the price of a brief web search you will find a workplace model that empowers you and self-polices the employees. The model features:

1. Vague definitions of harassment that have nothing to do with sex.

2. Self-policing: The university model turns all employees into informants. If they refuse to inform on a violation of the incomprehensible policy, then others can inform on these refuseniks.

3. You will have no shortage of informants: coworkers (or customers/students) can turn in others for frivolous reasons and never have their identity known to the accused.

4. Even better, trained police ("advisers") will coach accusers and write their complaints for them (apparently, those in college cannot write a simple report of events).

5. Finally, have your lawyers repeat (again and again) "this is required by law" (even if it really isn't).

Sound unreal?

Welcome to the wacky world of Sexual Harassment Codes on college campuses. Since the devil doesn’t like to be mocked (shame on me), I will limit myself to explaining the devilish, yet typical situation at my own institution, Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU). You may insert other universities because while SIU may be “special,” it is not unique. 

To bring readers up to speed: The current sexual harassment code is so awful that it allegedly drove two distinguished professors off campus and one to his death, as alleged by his widow’s “death action” lawsuit against the university. The administration responded to a firestorm of criticism by drafting not-so-new policies and procedures. 

A few SIU-related links on sexual harassment, free speech, and due process highlight the issues at stake:

Sexual Harassment Procedures: You Have the Right to ... (mumble mumble) 

This link sums up criticisms of the Code being shoved on faculty, staff and students. Again, this is typical of many campuses. Enormous power concentrated in a single place, wielded arbitrarily and with no respect for civil liberties. 

"The Right to Know Your Accuser" (Leonard Gross) 

Professor Gross's entry got the most "hits" on my FreeU blog. It shocks people to know that you have no right to know your accuser.

The "sexual" in harassment is really lipstick on a pig: often the charge has to do with speech that makes someone uncomfortable or allegedly creates a "hostile environment." Like the drag show recently held on campus, the dressing covers what is beneath: in this case, "sexual harassment" is a speech code in drag.

Lest any one think that there are only a few victims of harassment codes, they may peruse the full list of FreeU posts on the topic.

The Sexual Harassment Establishment (S.H.E.) would have you believe that this is a tempest in a teapot. "Mistakes were made" but those were the exception, S.H.E. says.

Fact check: the guilty-until-innocent abuses have such a long history here that two prior blue-ribbon panels urged real reform.

Phil Howze, one of the courageous voices of reason here at SIU, told a local newspaper that "never again" should individuals be deprived of due process and of their dignity based on a rigged system.

An objective observer viewing the "massive resistance" to reform would change the university slogan to "See you next time." When next time comes, it won't be pretty. 

The travesties of sexual harassment run amok led me to create FreeU as a place to gather evidence and opinions in an enlarged “speech zone.” If your university has a flawed sexual harassment code, you will find plenty of ammunition to counter the sophistry of university administrators and their hired legal guns. 

Postscript: A blog focusing on a single campus or region can attract the media attention needed to effect change or educate people of good will. The original “Fear Factory” blog appeared in shortened form at FreeU; InsideHigherEd.com picked it up and ran an informative article for a national audience. Start your own individual or group blog (accepting other contributors) by using your real name or pseudonym (the so-called Publius blogs). 

Jonathan Bean is president of the Illinois affiliate of NAS and professor of History at Southern Illinois University. His latest book is Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky, in association with the Independent Institute, 2009). 

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