The Death of a Sexual-Harassment Policy

Savvy employers know the potential value of a sexual harassment policy.  Without an effective harassment policy, employers may not avail themselves of the most common (and successful) defense.  Employers take pains to ensure that their sexual and other types of harassment policies are thorough, are communicated to employees, and are capable of remedying the conduct as promptly and effectively as possible.  

So you can imagine the disappointment of Temple University when the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently struck down the University’s sexual harassment policy.  The court held that the policy was overly broad and improperly infringed on the free-speech rights of students.  Public employers should heed this warning–an overly broad harassment policy runs the risk of being invalidated.

And are you wondering what it was that the plaintiff claimed he could not say because of the sexual harassment policy?  The former graduate student who filed the lawsuit claimed that the policy prevented him from expressing his opinions about the role of women in the military.

The plaintiff, Christian DeJohn, was enrolled in Temple’s Masters program, where he was pursuing a degree in Military and American History.  The topic of DeJohn’s masters thesis was the role of women in the military.  DeJohn argued that the policy restricted his ability to voice his opinions.  After DeJohn commenced his litigation, Temple voluntarily amended the policy.

The Third Circuit found two problems with the school’s sexual harassment policy.  First, the policy, which prohibited “all forms of sexual harassment,” specifically targeted “expressive, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual or gender-motivated nature when… such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work, educational performance, or status; or . . . of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”  The problem with this language is that the policy barred such conduct regardless of whether it actually had such an effect.

Second, the Court found that the language of the anti-harassment policy prohibited too wide a range of activities, noting that the use of words such as “‘hostile,’ ‘offensive,’ and ‘gender-motivated’” were so broad and subjective that they could be applied to just about any speech that is “gender motivated” and that someone finds offensive.