September 29, 2015

ASHE SCHOW: Court ruling shows limits of campus sexual harassment expulsions.

A three-judge panel on the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled that a university couldn’t expel a student based on disparaging comments the student made about his ex-girlfriend on the social media platform Twitter.

The student, Navid Yeasin, had been expelled for allegedly violating the University of Kansas’ sexual harassment rules because he sent tweets that called his ex-girlfriend a “psycho” and a “b—-,” among other things. The appeals judges ruled on Friday that while the tweets were “puerile and sexually harassing,” in their opinion, the school couldn’t expel Yeasin because the communications didn’t fall under their jurisdiction.

The appeals court ruled that the school could not expel the student for comments made off-campus (the school provided no evidence that the tweets were sent on campus) or not in connection with any university activity. The school’s code of conduct doesn’t cover comments made in tweets and other social media platforms.

To be sure, this is a narrow ruling, as schools across the country are repeatedly adjudicating cases of alleged sexual assault that occur off-campus and are unconnected to any school activity. Kansas’ code of conduct stated at the time (it has since been updated): “The university may not institute disciplinary proceedings unless the alleged violation(s) giving rise to the disciplinary action occurs on university premises or at university-sponsored or supervised events, or as otherwise required by federal, state or local law.”

The school argued that the mention of “federal law” included Title IX, the anti-discrimination law that was reinterpreted in 2011 to require schools to adjudicate felony sexual assault outside the criminal justice system. The judges noted in their ruling, however, that the code of conduct provisions that led to Yeasin’s expulsion didn’t refer to federal law, only on-campus conduct.

“It seems obvious that the only environment the university can control is on campus or at university-sponsored or supervised events,” the judges wrote. “After all, the university is not an agency of law enforcement, but is rather an institution of learning.”

This debacle may be drawing to an end. At least, there are a few glimmers of good sense. And, by the way, Title IX doesn’t require campuses to adjudicate sexual harassment. That’s just the rather absurd position of the Department of Education.

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