One does not need much of an imagination to come up with examples of how antidiscrimination law could be used to silence left-wing academics....Now comes word, via John Rosenberg, that the University of North Carolina professor in question, Elyse Crystall, is, along with UNC, being investigated by the Department of Education for violating federal civil rights law by creating a hostile environment for white, male, Christian students. A conservative Republican Congressman, Rep. Walter Jones, helped instigate the investigation. I predict that this will not be the last we hear of hostile environment blowback. As I wrote in You Can't Say That!, the fact that radical feminists and criticical race theorists living "in a society that has long been, and continues to be, hostile to their ideology would want to weaken the principle that government may not suppress expression because of hostility to its viewpoint seems counterintuitive and shortsighted, to say the least."
Consider how the concept of "hostile educational environment" could be applied to Women's Studies classes taught by radical feminists. Students from traditional, white middle-American Christian backgrounds are often told that they are inherently racists, that the traditional religious values that they grew up on are reactionary principles that serve to support an oppressive patriarchy, and, that if they are men, that much of the sex that have or will engage in amounts to rape.
Just recently, a student at Univeristy of North Carolina expressed religious objections to homosexual conduct and criticized homosexuality as "disgusting" in class. His professor sent out an email to the entire class lambasting this student:
what we experienced, as unforunate as it is, is, however, a perfect example of privilege. that a white, heterosexual, christian male, one who vehemently denied his privilege last week insisting that he earned all he has, can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable is what privilege makes possible.
The chairman of this professor's department was notified of this ill-tempered outburst, and under pressure from him, she apologized. That's all appropriate; professors shouldn't be singling out students in vituperative emails. But what if this student filed a "hostile environment" complaint against his professor for creating a hostile environment for him as a Christian, and perhaps as a white male? Isn't it clear he would have a good case? And wouldn't his winning such a case have a chilling effect on what other feminist professors say in class, even if they say it in a more moderate and appropriate way?
Even the weakest discrimination complaints can lead, at a minimum, to a mandatory investigation by the Department of Education. Internal university investigations and, most chillingly, lawsuits against both universities and feminist professors as individuals for promoting and tolerating hostile environments for Christian students are other things that one could look forward to if academic freedom is weakened. Conservative Christian groups seem to have not yet realized the weapon they have in their hands, but they undoubtedly will.
In this March post, I discussed the case of Elyse Crystall, a left-wing feminist English professor at the University of North Carolina under investigation by the federal Department of Education for alleging subjecting one of her students to an illegal "hostile educational environment" for singling him out for criticism as a conservative "white" "male" "Christian" student in an email to her class. Now comes word that Prof. Crystall has been found to have engaged in illegal activity. In a letter to the UNC chancellor, the DOE's southern regional director of civil rights "The e-mail message not only subjected the student to intentional discrimination and harassment, but also discouraged the robust exchange of ideas that is intrinsic to higher education and is at the very heart of the Constitution's protection of free speech." The DOE chose not to undertake disciplinary action against UNC only because, the Washington Times reports, "Ms. Crystall had apologized for her actions and the university had convened faculty workshops to discourage race and sex discrimination against white, male, Christian undergraduates." Many professors create an intentionally challenging (some would say hostile) environment for students with traditionalist religious beliefs, and I predict that some conservative Christian groups will take the DOE's ruling as an invitation to use hostile environment law against such professors.
Thanks to reader Matt Rustler for the tip.
UPDATE: Now that I've read the DOE's letter, it's clear that its finding of discrimination was based solely on a finding of race and sex discrimination by Professor Crystall. The DOE Office of Civil Rights has no jurisdiction over claims of religious discrimination. I'm not sure if federal law actually bans religious discrimination against students, but many states have laws (or executive orders) banning such discrimination, either in public universities or in all nonreligious universities in the state.
This is the letter that David Bernstein referred to in his Hostile Environment Blowback post below, and it explains why the Department's Office for Civil Rights thought the professor's e-mail about the student's anti-gay comments constituted racial and sexual discrimination and harassment. The always excellent UCLA Law Library has kindly gotten a copy of the letter for me, and I thought I'd put it up.
(Note that there's been a bit of trouble with the UCLA servers today; if you don't get a response when accessing the files, just wait an hour and try again.)
UPDATE: The original post mistakenly said this involved religious discrimination and harassment -- I should have said racial and sexual discrimination and harassment. Sorry; that's the problem with blogging in a hurry. Thanks to reader Richard Riley for correcting this.