Sunday, December 7, 2008

Update: SVSU Discrimination And Harassment Policy Receives Revision

By Michael Westendorf

SVSU has changed its policy on discrimination, sexual harassment and racial harassment. 

In February, the Vanguard reported that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave the policy its worst rating for “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” 

SVSU Director of Media Relations J.J. Boehm said in February the University might scrutinize the policy more closely as a result of the rating. 

The policy undergoes a yearly review and during the summer, the University decided to rewrite it.

FIRE took issue with a provision in the former policy that stated: “Physical acts or threats or verbal slurs, invectives or epithets, taunting or verbal abuse, degrading comments or jokes referring to an individual’s race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, marital or familial status, color, height, weight, handicap or disability are strictly prohibited.” This provision has been removed from the updated policy.

“While we are pleased that Saginaw Valley State University has removed the most egregiously unconstitutional section of their policy,” writes William Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, in an e-mail, “[W]e are disappointed that SVSU has chosen not to incorporate the precise legal standard for peer-on-peer ‘hostile environment’ announced by the United States Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education.”

Creeley explained, “The Davis standard requires behavior to be ‘so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit’ to be considered true, actionable harassment. Unfortunately, SVSU’s new policy fails to include any requirement that the behavior in question be severe, pervasive or objectively offensive. Instead, SVSU’s policy merely requires that the allegedly ‘harassing’ behavior ‘tends to create a hostile environment or that interferes with an individual’s academic effort, employment or participation in University activities.’ This is a less stringent standard, as it declines to incorporate the ‘severe, pervasive or objectively offensive’ threshold requirement. As such, the new policy is impermissibly overbroad because it fails to guarantee sufficient security to expression protected under the First Amendment – which SVSU, as a public university, is legally obligated to uphold.”

FIRE says that as a result of the change, they will reevaluate SVSU’s rating sooner than usual. The organization reviews each university annually.

Because the policy was just changed, the new policy isn’t included in the 2008-09 student handbook. 

“SVSU should alert all students about the change so that there is no confusion about which policy is now applicable,” Creeley said.

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