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Jul 17, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

Free Speech Coalition Files Open Letter to U.S. Department of Justice and Education to Retract Sexual Harassment Settlement

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
(Photo : Reuters) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaking at the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington D.C.

A broad First Amendment watchdog coalition of has sent an open letter urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (ED) to retract their recent settlement of a sexual harassment mandate at schools across the nation, according to a press release.

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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) leads the coalition of 16 organizations and 11 individual attorneys, academic personnel and civil libertarians. The letter states that the new settlement reached by the DOJ/ED impedes students' right to free speech by being too broad on what qualifies as sexually harassing speech.

The blueprint for sexual harassment campus policy has a broad definition, the coalition argued.

In a letter from the DOJ/ED to the University of Montana, the school was told sexual harassment could be defined as "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including "verbal conduct."

The letter also discounted a "reasonable person" standard and said if the listener were to take offense in any way, the speaker could be punished.

"The Departments of Justice and Education have redefined harassment so broadly as to render potentially every student and faculty member a harasser. The new definition is an affront to the First Amendment, to academic freedom, and to common sense," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in the release Tuesday. "FIRE is proud to join with organizations and individuals across the political spectrum, both on campus and off, to ask the government to retract its unconstitutional national campus speech code."

FIRE's letter and its co-signers have asked for a swift retraction and revision for every federally funded school. The letter acknowledged that higher education institutions had to take any measure possible to prevent sexual harassment and abuse, but urged that it must not be at the "sacrifice the civil liberties of their students and faculty members to do so."

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) submitted a letter of his own on June 26 asking for the blueprint to be explained better for its broad definition. McCain brought up the section of the blueprint that stated institutions may punish accused students before an investigation is completed.

"DOJ's new interpretation of sexual harassment and its suggested disciplinary procedures are direct hindrances to students' and teachers' First Amendment rights as well as their right to due process," McCain wrote.

The Arizona Senator also mentioned a June 6 letter from two representative of the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession of the American Association of University Professors. Ann Green and Donna Potts wrote to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez saying the settlement concerned them.

"[Green and Potts'] letter asserted that the new definition 'eliminates the critical standard of 'reasonable speech,' and, in doing so, may pose a threat to academic freedom in the classroom,'" McCain wrote, quoting the two professors' letter.

McCain requested a response by Wednesday, July 17 and concluded his letter with a series of questions for the DOJ/ED.

Click here and scroll down to the second letter on the page to read his questions for the DOJ.

FIRE is a non-profit watchdog organization dedicated to protecting First Amendment rights on college campuses.

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