Better Not Denigrate Religions / Disabilities / Veteran Status / Sexual Orientation / Etc. at Your University:

I just looked at Brandeis's "harassment"-based speech code, which is available at the FIRE site; here's what it threatens to punish students (not just teachers) for saying (I excerpt the most troubling parts) -- and unfortunately such broad codes, drawn from hostile work environment law, are present at many universities:

[V]iolations of this policy will not be tolerated and may result in corrective actions up to and including dismissal from school ....

This policy applies to all Brandeis students, faculty and staff....

Harassment, whether sexual or based on an individual’s protected class status (of race, color, ancestry, religious creed, gender identity and expression, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, disability, Vietnam Era veteran, qualified special, disabled veteran or other eligible veteran status or any other category protected by law) is a form of discrimination and will not be tolerated. It is regarded as harassment when conduct: has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person's education or work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment in which to work, study or live ....

Harassment may occur between supervisor/supervisee, faculty/student, within peer groups, or with third parties.

Examples Of Harassment

Depending on the circumstances, conduct which may constitute sexual harassment includes but is not limited to: ...

• ... [D]isplaying of sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons or posters, suggestive or obscene letters or emails, notes, invitations or gifts;
• Making or using derogatory comments, epithets, slurs or jokes with a sexual content; ...
• Displaying, sending, forwarding, downloading or otherwise distributing sexual materials via the internet, computer or email ...

Examples of Other Forms of Harassment/Discrimination

There are other forms of harassment/discrimination as well that create a hostile educational or work environment on the basis of race, color, ancestry, religious creed, gender identity and expression, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, disability, Vietnam Era veteran, qualified special, disabled veteran or other eligible veteran status or any other category protected by federal or state law (together, “protected class status”).

Depending on the circumstances, the following are examples of behaviors that may constitute harassment/discrimination under this policy. This is not an exhaustive list:

• Jokes, comments or innuendoes that make fun of, denigrate or are based on an individual’s or group’s protected class status;
• Epithets or slurs based on an individual’s or group’s protected class status;
• Objects, posters, cartoons or pictures which make fun of, denigrate or are based on an individual’s or group’s protected class status whether directed to an individual, placed on University premises or displayed or circulated on campus;
• Displaying, sending, forwarding, downloading or otherwise distributing materials via the internet, computer, or email that make fun of, denigrate or are based on protected class status;
• Other verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion towards an individual or group based on protected class status....

The University may take action on conduct that it deems to be inappropriate, regardless of whether it rises to the level of a violation of law.

These are not limited to statements said to a particular offended person. (In fact, one provision that I don't include above covers "Unwelcome sexual conduct toward an individual, including offensive comments, touching or sexual propositions"; no such limitation appears in the items I quote above.) Nor is there any exception for statements that are part of political, social, or religious debate, or for that matter of friendly conversation that happens to be overheard by others.

So if you distribute materials that make fun of Scientologists (which are based on "a protected class status," namely religion), and this is found to "unreasonably interfer[e] with a person's education ... by creating ... [an] offensive environment in which to work, study or live"), you're guilty. Likewise if you denigrate or show hostility towards fundamentalist Christians, or extremist Muslims, or veterans, or gays, or people who have certain disabilities (or for that matter certain "genetic information").

Likewise if someone concludes that your "sexually suggestive" objects, pictures, or cartoons "unreasonably interfer[e] with [their] education" (for instance, because they are very offended by sexual content, and see it in the dorms often, whether on people's T-shirts or doors). Likewise if people feel such "unreasonabl[e] interfer[ence]" because they overhear people's "jokes with a sexual content" (or should that be limited just to "derogatory jokes with a sexual content").

What constitutes an "abusive or offensive" environment? When does political or religious commentary "unreasonably interfer[e] with [people's] education"? Say that someone feels genuinely upset by the fact that others have the temerity to harshly condemn fundamentalist Christianity or extremist Islam or who knows what else, whether in student newspaper articles, at demonstrations, or in overheard conversations, and finds it hard to be excited about school as a result. Does that qualify?

Of course, I quite doubt that the policy is enforced often, or evenhandedly. But it's out there whenever someone (a student, a student group, or the administration) wants to make trouble for others who express certain kinds of views. Not what we ought to have at universities that try to take free speech and academic freedom, it seems to me. But inevitable once one asserts a supposed civil right to be free from "harassment," defined to include speech (including speech not directed at the offended person) that might offend based on race, religion, sex, and the like.