Colleges Paranoid Over Sexual Speech

As a former U.S. Education Department lawyer, I largely agree with Cathy Young's criticism of the department for demanding that colleges treat as "sexual harassment" any "unwelcome" sexual speech, even if it would not offend a "reasonable person" ["Yet another governmental overreach," Opinion, May 28].

That would treat even a professor who appropriately discusses sexual topics – like how HIV is transmitted – as a harasser if a single student finds the topic "unwelcome." That would violate court rulings such as DeJohn v. Temple University (2008), which ruled that speech on sexual topics is protected by the First Amendment even if it is unwelcome to some listeners, and cannot be banned as harassment.

However, the Education Department did not say, as Young writes, that all unwelcome sexual conduct is actionable, i.e., the basis for a lawsuit. Rather, it said that broad definition of harassment should be used in college discipline. It admitted that a narrower definition applies in lawsuits.