Anti-harassment policy raises First Amendment questions


Members of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs committee say they have met with University officials and voiced concerns that a proposed new anti-harassment measure may potentially stifle classroom discussion and require the entire Pitt community to report suspicious speech to University authorities.

After the meeting, the policy was pulled from a vote before Faculty Assembly.

Committee co-chair Irene Frieze, retired psychology faculty member, and Seth Weinberg, of dental medicine, met with Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement, as well as representatives from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), Frieze said. The meeting created concern about First Amendment issues, she said, since the policy prohibits discriminatory speech from everyone on campus, from faculty, staff and students to visitors.

Turning faculty and students into mandatory reporters of alleged harassment is a proposal that “I think will kill any discussion in class,” she said. Asked by a committee member how harassing speech was defined by the policy, Frieze said: “They had a definition but it is basically everything. A student can never come to a faculty member and talk about anything.”

“Eighteen- to 22-year-olds should be allowed to make mistakes,” added committee member Tom Songer, a Graduate School of Public Health faculty member. “These are our formative years.”

“Mandatory reporting sounds like something out of some police state,” added Jay Sukits of business administration. “It sounds so nebulous and so wide-ranging that you would sort of catch everything in the net. What is this supposed to accomplish?”

“Stop all discrimination,” Frieze said,

“Well, you can’t do that,” Sukits said.

Drafts of the policy and procedure, dated Sept. 26, 2019, say it “applies to all full- and part-time members of the University community including all students, post-doctoral associates and post-doctoral scholars, research associates, faculty, visiting faculty and scholars, faculty administrators, staff, staff administrators, officers, Board of Trustee members, Advisory Board members, guest lecturers, volunteers, third parties such as contractors (“University community members”), and other University officials.”

The proposed policy would also apply to students “on the date on which the student pays a deposit or matriculates, whichever is sooner” and to faculty and staff “when the offer of employment is accepted,” regardless of their presence on campus.

“Discrimination and harassment as defined herein are prohibited when they impact the educational or employment environment, regardless of whether the conduct at issue occurred on campus or off campus,” the policy draft states.

The policy also says harassment “may occur through a wide range of conduct, such as by verbal, physical or electronic means when (1) the conduct is severe or pervasive, and both objectively and subjectively has the effect of (a) unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or equal access to education; or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or academic environment; or (2) such conduct, if repeated, is reasonably likely to meet the standard set forth in number 1 immediately above. The fact that someone did not intend to engage in harassment against an individual is not considered a sufficient response to a harassment complaint.”

Mandatory reporting of suspected harassment would affect all Pitt employees “unless their job requires professional confidentiality, as in the case of mental health counselors, physicians, nurses, and clergy, and they are acting in the scope of those duties,” it says.

Proposed University responses to harassment parallel established responses for complaints of sexual harassment or assault: they “may include an initial inquiry, an informal process, and/or a formal process or investigation … by ODI, the Office of Human Resources (OHR), or by a trained third party ODI designate(s) under limited circumstances…”

The policy does contain a provision noting the protection of free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution: “This Policy does not prohibit academic activities, such as lectures, classroom debates, reading assignments, presentations, coursework, and publications, involving content of an allegedly discriminatory nature that is reasonably related to the academic topic.” 

Frieze reported that she and other committee members have been invited to meet again with the same University officials to discuss a revised version of the policy and procedures: “They’re going to try to rewrite the policy to accommodate some of our concerns,” she said.

Title change for lecturers raises concerns

The committee also reviewed a new issue with the University’s proposal to term non-tenure faculty “appointment stream faculty” and re-style lecturers as assistant, associate or full professors, albeit with a prefix that may denote a variant in their status.

Although this proposal was recently approved by Faculty Assembly, discussion there noted that the new title would place lecturers, who are usually paid less than other professors, in the same employment categories with traditional professors, causing the average salary in all such categories to go down.

How will this affect how Pitt faculty salaries are benchmarked against other schools, asked committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, a lecturer in the French and Italian department of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “If our peer and aspirational universities are using ‘lecturer’ to mean a certain thing,” and Pitt no longer is doing so, will this put pressure on the University to increase salaries to remain competitive — at least as listed in the annual Faculty Compensation Survey of the Association of American Universities?

Denman said she was using benchmarking data today in her current contract renewal discussions. “People in that category only stand to gain,” she said of lecturers.

A third policy, aiming to create better access to digital resources for those with disabilities, drew committee discussion after Faculty Assembly tabled it for changes concerning who pays for the work of creating digital accessibility and who has the responsibility to do the work. Denman said she would draft a statement of proposed committee concerns for member approval, with the intention of sending it to Pitt’s policy office.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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