Is Slut-Shaming Constitutionally Protected?

slut shamingIs slut-shaming constitutionally protected? Some university general counsels seem to think so. The controversy at my university, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), centers on an article that appeared in the campus newspaper in April 2013. The article contained screenshots of student comments on one of those “confessions” Facebook sites that have been floating to the surface from the underbellies of student life. One of the published screenshots that caused consternation for me, many of my students, and most of my colleagues, contained a reference to a sexual act in relationship to a named student: “Like if you fucked [actual name of a UAF student]. Comment if it was a three-some.”

Yes, you read that right. Actual name of a student, targeted in the campus newspaper, published in print and online, with an inquiry about who had had sexual intercourse with her. Using the f-word. Published in the newspaper. Print and online. I keep repeating the fact that the student was named in the newspaper, and continues to be named in the online version to ensure that you understand the full import of what is occurring.

The screen shots published in the paper contain other quite offensive posts, all of them by students identified by name. The posts are offensive due to their advocacy of violence against women, fag-bashing, racial slurs, and sexually harassing nature. All of the kind of stuff that you might expect young people just out of high school to post on Facebook once the adults aren’t watching. If the newspaper had obscured the names of the students who had posted and the names of the students targeted for sexual harassment, the student-journalists would have made a valuable contribution to the discussion of campus climate. But they didn’t. The name of one student whose post advocated violence against a pregnant woman was highlighted by bold lines. You can’t miss that one. Imagine sitting next to him in class, knowing that he had posted this: “Hit her in the stomach. She’ll thank you later.” The woman whose sex life was discussed was interviewed for the article, and she emphasized how much she did not want her sex life to be discussed in a public forum, although she did give her permission to have her real name used in the article. Turns out she was also a graduate teaching assistant. This means that her students had the opportunity to further giggle and gossip about her sexual activities while she was teaching. Or to be horrified and upset and unable to focus in class. Do you think the students’ attention was on the subject material after reading about their instructor’s sex life in the newspaper? Were the learning objectives of the course achieved? Can you say “hostile environment?”

Okay, so young people posted offensive things on the UAF Confessions Facebook site and the campus newspaper reprinted them without redacting names. Opportunities for continued cyberbullying and online harassment of women, homosexuals, pregnant women, and Alaska Natives abound. Just what you would expect from young people fresh out of high school. No big deal, right? Wrong. Consider the recent case of Amanda Todd, the Canadian girl who committed suicide after being bullied online and at her school. She was slut-shamed online and could not bear to live afterwards. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault and domestic violence in America. Fairbanks was listed in a Forbes article in 2012 as being one of the three most dangerous cities for women to live. So yes, sexual harassment in Fairbanks that target named women, and harassment committed by named students does matter. It contributes to the production and reproduction of rape culture. It harms women and men. But our university general counsel believes that such speech is constitutionally protected. He’s wrong–the constitution does not protect illegal speech, and sexual harassing speech is illegal through both employment law and Title IX. Which brings me to my next question: What Alaska parent in her or his right mind would encourage a son or daughter to attend a university that condones illegal sexual harassment in its campus newspaper?

Sociologists note how peer groups, in this case other students, and the mass media, such as Facebook and the internet, have emerged in recent years as the most important agents of socialization and social control. What young people’s peers do, and what kind of media they consume (or that consumes them) shape youth existence on this planet in ways that are still not clearly understood by those who matter the most: adults who are supposed to be guiding, mentoring, protecting, teaching, and nurturing them.

In the case of the online and print articles that slut-shamed a student at UAF, the university’s general counsel determined that freedom of speech trumped women students’ rights to a safe and welcoming school environment. General counsel determined that fag-bashing in the newspaper is protected speech. The advocacy of violence against a pregnant student is just fine and dandy at UAF, according to our general counsel. Racist remarks against Alaska Natives are okay-dokey. (January 31, 2014 update: the racist remarks have been removed from the digital version of the article. Presumably, racism is not okay, but sexism and heterosexism are fine.)

The fact is, the constitution does not protect illegal speech–such as unwanted sexual jokes, unwelcome sexual comments, sexually violent comments, and sexually hostile speech. UA General Counsel made an incorrect decision. Our university general counsel apparently believes that slut-shaming is constitutionally protected. Not only are they condoning sexual harassment and the hostile environment that it creates for women and men who witness sexual harassment, they are actively supporting it. Feeding the beast.

About sineanahita

Alaska's fiddling sociologist
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6 Responses to Is Slut-Shaming Constitutionally Protected?

  1. kelly moore says:

    Perhaps someone can sue the university and give the general counsel a fresh perspective. Say, from the unemployment line?

  2. Jack says:

    You argue that speech is sexual harassment, but then go on to explain precisely why it is not actually sexual harassment.

    Chiefly, you make a great big fuss about how a student’s name was used in reporting about a post that talked about her sexual activities. You then say that the student *wanted* her name to be used in the article, but claim that it is sexual harassment anyway because she is a TA and her students would find out? Isn’t she capable of making that decision for herself? Didn’t she? How is it sexual harassment if she willingly consented?

    You also claim that it is sexual harassment to publish the name of someone who advocated punching a pregnant woman because someone might later feel uncomfortable sitting next to him. Do you think it would be sexual harassment to report on a sexual harassment claim brought against someone on campus? After all, it might make someone else uncomfortable interacting with someone. Still further, it is completely unfathomable that reporting what someone else has said could constitute sexual harassment on the part of the reporter. It is illogical and nonsensical.

    And so we reach the ultimate problem with all of this, as indicated by your closing paragraph. “Unwanted sexual jokes” and “sexually hostile speech” does not lose all First Amendment protection. There is a clear legal definition of what sexual harassment is. The language you use is far too vague, and covers a large amount of protected speech. Would you support a finding of sexual harassment if a student found a campus production of the Vagina Monologues to be offensive? Just because speech is offensive (to some) and touches on matters of gender or sex does not mean it isn’t protected by the First Amendment, and there are decades of legal precedent to support this.

    So, to answer your question, yes, slut-shaming is typically constitutionally protected.

  3. sineanahita says:

    Thanks, Jack, for engaging. Your examples, e.g. campus production of Vagina Monologues, would not be sexual harassment in my book. What made the Sun-Star articles sexually harassing is that they targeted named individuals. If the Sun-Star had obscured students’ names in the UAF Confessions article, for example, it would have been a valuable piece of student journalism.

  4. Soange Mayer says:

    Thank you for your deep thinking on this. Sometimes we have been fighting so long we see enemies everywhere, instead of the good people fighting beside us.

    You wrote that what made the story about bullies “sexually harassing is that they targeted named individuals…” I think it is important to hold people accountable for their bad behavior – so I must agree with Jack not to think that “reporting what someone else has said could constitute sexual harassment on the part of the reporter.”

    We are dealing with a case of bullying like this in my community. When you redact names and protect the bullies, that is like saying the police just arrested your nephew for molesting his daughter, but “please don’t tell me, I don’t want to take him off my Christmas card list.”

    The woman who chose to be named is standing against the patriarchy. She is refusing to be victimized. I think the reporter who wrote about the bullying was not the least bit facilitating sexual harassment. Please think on this again, on your way to reconciliation.

    She is fighting with you, not against you.

  5. Philip Rose says:

    Interesting that you mention the Amanda Todd case, which is extremely interesting from a sociological point of view in that is almost entirely a myth. Hardly any of the story is true, and even fewer of the interpretations of her infamous video are in any way trustworthy. Have we really come to this – that what is shown on YouTube and then leapt upon by misinformed media becomes fact?
    What perhaps is more interesting is the case of Hannah Smith, and it certainly warrants some thought. She committed suicide after ‘abuse’ online, but now the investigation shows that she sent her own abuse to her own self (it’s called cyber or digital self harm). There is a lot more going on with all this online stuff than meets the eye. Try Tallulah Wilson, another mind-boggling case. And who can forget Jessi Slaughter or Aurora Eller?
    Also – this problem of gender-based slut-shaming diverts attention from trying to understand the full complexity of it all. It’s worth noting that Amanda Todd’s story went stratospheric because she was a ‘pretty’ girl. She was immediately seen – before anyone knew the full story – as innocent, an ‘angel’ and an ‘inspirational role model’ despite the fact that the story was made up. Yet a male story goes much neglected by society – did anyone bother much about Daniel Perry?
    Just as damaging as any potential slut-shaming is the opposite – girl worshipping – and it’s accompanying ‘all men are evil’ followers. Note that, in the Todd case, which was meant to be all about anti-bullying, forgiveness, understanding and so on, the person who was erroneously implicated in it all was threatened with death, ostracised from the local society, and still remains a victim of vigilante activity, even though he is totally innocent.

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