Physical and intellectual harassment: drawing lines

Drafting rules to govern workplace harassment seems to be as difficult as monitoring free speech on college campuses. In both cases, subjectivity and politics keep getting in the way.

On campus, liberal students know they can claim that any conservative speaker or idea is harmful and their administrators will respond like Pavlovian dogs and coddle them.

In a fair world, students who disrupt reasonable speech would not get coloring books but an ultimatum ­— grow up or get out. Unfortunately, many administrators seem more concerned with protecting liberal dogma than with free speech.

Despite the angst over this issue, it isn’t difficult to determine what constitutes reasonable speech if you’re honest about it. For example, it’s just as reasonable to favor tight borders as open ones, to be pro-life as pro-choice, to prefer capitalism over socialism, to want smaller government rather than larger.

If you don’t like the speaker, don’t attend. If you have a better idea, pitch it. If hearing other views makes you faint, see your doctor. But seriously interfere with free speech and reasonable ideas and you’re out.

As for sexual harassment, the recent flood of workplace firings saw examples of admirable resolve and unseemly posturing, mostly driven by politics and money. The left rejoiced when Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were ousted at Fox News. The New York Times on two occasions put the most salacious allegations against O’Reilly above the fold on the front page. O’Reilly and Ailes were despised political enemies of the liberal press.

Nor was the left upset with Harvey Weinstein’s fall, even though he was a big Democratic donor. Harvey’s crimes were so monstrous that everyone wanted him out. Making his eviction easy for the left was its battle against Hollywood moguls who don’t hire enough female or minority writers and directors.

Weinstein did have enablers such as the calculating feminist attorney Lisa Bloom, and there were Hollywood stars who professed to be as clueless about him as Sgt. Schultz pretended to be at Stalag 13: “I know nothing, nothing!”

It got dicier for the left when Democratic Senator Al Franken was charged with groping women. Feminists tried to overlook this because Al was a “champion of women.” (Actually, he was a serial abuser of women.) Some defenses of Franken were truly tortured.

But when the tally of groped women reached eight, Al’s colleagues who hoped to salvage his career had to give it up. Even so, many female senators cried at his resignation and even hugged Al goodbye. (Didn’t they realize he might get in another grope?)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) made a tactical decision to come out against Franken and, to be consistent, added that serial-groper Bill Clinton should have resigned his presidency 20 years ago. Having used Bill for years to further her own career, Gillibrand wasn’t suddenly getting noble; she was just grooming herself for her own presidential run.

Despite such political posturing and hypocrisy, however, the rules governing sexual harassment, like those for campus speech, are fairly straightforward as long as politics are left out.

Anything physical (rape, groping, exposure, etc.) should be a firing offense and probably include jail. Weinstein should never see daylight again, and even Franken deserves some time. The eight groped women are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Some behaviors are more subjective. Making a date overture is not a firing offense. Making repeated overtures when told no can be. Offending someone with speech or action that does not violate reasonable standards is not a crime. This is a lesson that many people (including pampered students) need to learn — not everything they dislike is actionable. Some things you have to live with. Many behaviors are matters of degree, repetition and environment — that’s where the subjectivity comes in.

The accused always should have due process. The Obama administration’s notion that college harassment cases should be judged on a simple preponderance of evidence led to many cases of railroading. The right to bring evidence and to cross-examine must be preserved.

The identity of minors must be protected, but to cloak in anonymity every adult female who regrets a consensual hookup while openly naming the man is blatantly unfair. If women are shamed by publicity, so are men. If women are not believed, men sure aren’t. What happens when it’s two men? Name both? Two women? Name neither? C’mon.

Mixing gender and politics into these issues and allowing social media to be an arbiter only creates more injustice, causing harm to cases of real harassment and hate speech.


Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk. His book, “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets,” is available from the Oak Knoll Press.