The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued the university a yellow light rating at the end of October for its wording in several Title IX policies they believe are “vague” and “ambiguous.”
FIRE found issues with the Student Handbook’s “Harassment and Nondiscrimination Policy”, the Code of Student Conduct’s “Unwelcome Harassment” and “Bullying and Cyberbullying” policies and inconsistent definitions of sexual harassment on Title IX’s website.
FIRE’s Senior Program Officer Laura Beltz said yellow light ratings are awarded to policies that could too easily be applied to restrict constitutionally protected speech.
Beltz said the First Amendment does not protect speech that falls under the proper definition Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education deems as hostile environment harassment, but she found several harassment definitions in the university’s policies that do not meet the Court’s standard.
“If a student turns to another student in class and tells him an off-color joke, that incident probably doesn’t constitute hostile environment harassment,” Beltz said. “But if that student tells an off-color joke to the other student every single class period, despite his objections and to the point that the other student feels uncomfortable returning to class, it likely would constitute hostile environment harassment under the Court’s standard.”
Title IX Coordinator Tammy Jacques said her office has already addressed the majority of the issues FIRE reported through a proposal she submitted April 20 of a revised version of the current policies and procedures.
“We have all these policies that are out here, but none of them are consistent,” Jacques said. “I can see where FIRE’s yellow light rating is at because they are not consistent in the language and they are not consistent in the wording. My concern was that we don’t have consistent language on campus.”
Jacques started her role as Title IX coordinator in 2014, and this is the third year the current policy has existed. She said she has been working on the newly revised version for the last year and a half, which is adapted from the Association of Title IX Administrators.
Before Title IX can implement the new policy, the Shared Governance Executive Committee will review it for consideration.
“The Faculty and Staff Welfare committee has already reviewed it,” Jacques said. “Once it is completely vetted, we hope it is passed by the end of next semester.”
Jaques admitted that FIRE’s report was helpful for her to address inconsistent links to policies on their website.
“The wording is not consistent in all of those links, which is the problem I saw when looking at policies last year,” Jacques said.
Her office updated the links Nov. 15 to reflect FIRE’s recommendations.
The current policies and procedures handbook will still be the standard until the proposal goes through the entire vetting process, but Jacques believes they are still sound enough to practice for now.
“There is a fine balance in approaching somebody’s free speech and harassment, but I truly believe the spirit of FIRE’s recommendations align with ours as well,” Jacques said.
Beltz said if the university revises the harassment policies to meet First Amendment standards, they would improve to earn FIRE’s highest, “green light rating” for free speech.
UNA would join Auburn University as the only other Alabama institution on FIRE’s green light list.