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AAUP Questions Agreement in Sex-Assault Inquiry at U. of Montana

The American Association of University Professors said on Thursday it was “deeply concerned” about what it said was the redefinition of sexual harassment proposed in the University of Montana at Missoula’s recent agreement with federal officials to resolve an investigation of the institution’s handling of sexual-assault cases.

The association raised its concerns in a letter to Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil-rights division, and Russlynn H. Ali, the U.S. Department of Education’s former assistant secretary for civil rights.

The AAUP’s letter praises the two officials, whose departments collaborated on the investigation at the Montana flagship campus, for directing the institution to revise its policies “in order to create a more equitable campus environment for women.”

But the letter states that the AAUP is also “deeply concerned” about what some critics have said is the agreement’s expanded definition of sexual harassment. That expansion, the AAUP wrote, “eliminates the critical standard of ‘reasonable speech,’ and, in so doing, may pose a threat to academic freedom in the classroom.”

The AAUP warned that, under the proposed redefinition of sexual harassment, certain classroom topics that might offend student sensibilities—such as breastfeeding and abortion— “could easily become taboo in a range of classes where such content is appropriate.” The letter urges the government to clarify its position on the broader definition of sexual harassment, “in order to emphasize the special protection due academic freedom in the classroom.”

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