Free speech or sexual harassment?
Student suspended for material in dorm newsletter
CALIFORNIA— A judicial board at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont has suspended a student in April for a newsletter he published, drawing what it described as a line between free expression rights and sexual harassment.
Student Brad Kvederis was suspended for a semester. If he chooses to return he will have to take a sexual harassment sensitivity training program before returning to school.
Kvederis published a “gossip” newsletter primarily for his dorm, Wohlford Hall, and wrote about parties and included sexually suggestive material. In one issue, Kvederis answered the critics of his publication with an editorial titled “Land of the Free, Baby.”
“If you are afraid of anything controversial and are that determined to screw everything up, then go ahead,” the newsletter stated. “It will be pretty sad, though, since putting a stop to all things that could be controversial or offensive will make it damn hard to say anything on this campus without getting in trouble.”
Three female students — one of whom was mentioned in the newsletter — were not entertained by Kvederis’ newsletter and filed sexual harassment complaints with the university.
The university claims the content in the newsletter directly violated its sexual harassment policy.
Geoffrey Baum, assistant vice president for marketing and public relations for the university, said the school saw the content of the newsletter as sexual harassment, and did not see this as a violation of Kvederis’ free press rights.
Under California’s “Leonard Law,” students of both public and private schools may not be punished solely on the basis of their speech.
“From our perspective this was a sexual harassment issue,” Baum said. “We are required to provide an environment free of sexual harassment.”
But the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union came to the defense of Kvederis, saying the newsletter was far from sexual harassment.
The ACLU appealed to a Pomona Superior Court to keep the school’s judicial board from punishing Kvederis, but the court ruled that he “published a newsletter which may well contain obscene and libelous material and, therefore, is not constitutionally protected.
“His publication and other conduct appears to have the potential to create a hostile environment and could have become the basis of sexual harassment claims if the college did not take action when it did,” Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. wrote in the decision.
ACLU attorney Carol Sobel was unavailable for comment, but said previously in a report for the Los Angeles Times that she believed none of the material was libelous or obscene.
Fall 1997, reports