Class exercise about prostitution not “sexual harassment,” say national organizations in response to intimidation and threats by the University of Colorado-Boulder directed at sociology professor Patti Adler.
Joint statement warns CU-Boulder’s violation of academic freedom could have chilling effects across higher education
BOULDER–A joint statement released today by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), ACLU of Colorado (ACLU-CO), Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Student Press Law Center takes aim at the University of Colorado Boulder for its attempts to silence and intimidate Professor Patti Adler because of a class exploring the issue of prostitution.
The organizations are calling on the University to re-instate Professor Adler’s popular “Deviance in U.S. Society” course–with Adler as instructor–”without further reviews or conditions.” Adler reported in December that she had been advised that the course was being cancelled, and that she was given the choice to return, but not teach the course, or to take early retirement. The University’s actions were reportedly due to concerns that a classroom exercise in which teaching assistants role-play as prostitutes might constitute sexual harassment. Adler has used the exercise for many years in the course, which regularly attracts 500 students.
“We felt it was critical to organize a national response in this case both to support academic freedom and free speech on campus, and to clarify that sexual harassment laws and policies were never intended to chill legitimate academic inquiry into subjects like sexuality and sexual deviance. The distinction is essential to a myriad of important subjects of university study, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Courbet’s painting L’Origine du monde,” said NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin.
“Classroom discussion of issues related to sex and sexuality is not sexual harassment,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “By suggesting otherwise, and raising the possibility of disciplinary proceedings, the CU administration unjustifiably threatens to silence not only Professor Adler, but any professor whose classroom teaching may touch on sensitive topics.”
The statement outlines a decade of landmark Supreme Court decisions defining sexual harassment, which must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” behavior of a sexual nature. In contrast, a “mere offensive utterance” in the classroom or an “isolated instance” does not amount to sexual harassment.
NCAC and the other co-signers have dismissed CU Boulder’s latest offer to reinstate Adler after a faculty review of her class as insufficient “since this course was apparently singled out for extraordinary scrutiny based solely on the content, in violation of fundamental First Amendment principles.” Such a review “inevitably has a chilling effect, not only on Professor Adler, but on the faculty as whole and even on faculty at other Universities.”