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Student Rights and Responsibilities of Expression



The section that follows outlines the college's policy for adjudication of harass-ing expression. The intention in stating this policy is not to reduce complicated and painful interactions to a list of rules, which after all must be cautious and limited. On the contrary, these policies are listed in order both to facilitate the free expression of ideas and-emphatically-to support those who feel that they have been victimized by another's expression.

The college provides several resources to help those who believe that they may have been harassed, and those resources are listed in the "Options for Resolution" section below. You are encouraged to seek assistance from those offices listed, and from friends and counselors you already know. It is unconscionable that members of our community should suffer harassment. Since the damage done by expression is in essence a community problem, we wish to emphasize that we are committed to working out these problems as a community. We hope together to find the patience, support, discernment and courage that it takes to combat expressive abuse, and we offer the following policy to describe our administrative response to a problem that we are determined to work through on all levels of college life.

If the official policies that we outline here seem daunting as you seek help responding to an incident that troubles you, we urge you to come forward and talk to the members of our community who are familiar with them. The offices named in this document can help you to take action, to understand your rights and responsibilities, and ultimately to recover from the effects of harassing speech. Our commitment to freedom of expression on this campus is in no way meant to keep you from getting the assistance you need if you feel that you may have been the subject of expressive harassment.

For complete definitions of harassing expression, please see the section on "Harassment" in the Student Conduct Section of the Handbook.

Options for Resolution

Charges of harassment may be handled according to either informal or formal procedures. In general, opportunities for education and awareness are important elements in the resolution of harassment issues, sexual or otherwise. Individuals who wish to register concern about questionable behavior, but do not wish to claim intent or reckless disregard, are encouraged to speak to the person(s) involved and/or to any of the resource persons listed below. Regardless of whether or not options for resolution are pursued within the College system, complainants always have the option of seeking formal legal redress.

In cases of alleged harassing expression, the Equal Opportunity Officer will decide whether the offense merits adjudication. If the EO Officer determines the offense should be adjudicated, the case materials must first be reviewed by faculty members of the CJC, who shall determine whether any substantial free expression issues are at stake.1 If the CJC faculty members find that formal grievance procedures of the case would violate individual rights to free expression or the College's commitment to academic freedom, the case will not go forward. Instead, the case will be referred back to the EO officer who may discuss with the complainant(s) other options for resolution. If, on the other hand, it is determined by the faculty members of the CJC that the case represents no infringement on the right to free expression, the grievance will be allowed to go forward.

If the decision is made to adjudicate and the CJC finds the perpetrator(s) guilty, the CJC will determine the degree of harm caused and assess punishment up to and including expulsion. It will not be a defense that one did not intend the harm caused -that it was reckless. Lack of intent, however, may be a mitigating factor in determining the degree of punishment.

When adjudication is not deemed appropriate, mediation may be suggested, and it will normally be preferred as a first step anyway. In particularly egregious cases, however, the Equal Opportunity Officer may recommend adjudication without mediation. (Note: Mediation at Swarthmore College is never required: all parties involved must willingly agree to participate in the mediation process.)

In cases in which grievants and alleged offenders are from different parts of the community (students, staff, or faculty), complaints should be directed to the responsible office according to the identity of the alleged offender: Human Resources for staff, Dean's Office for students, and Provost for faculty. The formal grievance procedures are specified in the relevant sections of the corresponding Handbooks. Assistance and information are available from the offices listed below.

  • Provost's Office
  • Dean of the College's Office
  • Human Resources Office
  • Equal Opportunity Office

It is important to note that discussing concerns with or seeking clarification or support from College officers does not obligate a person to initiate either formal legal procedures or judicial procedures at the College, nor do such discussions preclude a person from doing so. The College officer to whom a complaint is made will record each request for assistance in resolving a case involving charges of harassment, whether formal or informal; these records will be kept confidential to the extent permitted by law.

Often perceived harassment is subtle; it cannot be assumed that the perceived offenders are aware of the way in which their behavior has been interpreted and the responsibility for resolution is shared by both parties. Either directly or through a third party, grievants should make their discomfort known to perceived harassers. Perceived harassers have a responsibility to attempt to understand both the intentional and unintentional effects of their behavior and to respond in a thoughtful, sensitive manner to those perceived effects. The grievant can consider all the informal and formal means available for resolution and choose what seems most useful and workable in a particular case. The grievant must also weigh the fact that the perceived harasser may continue the offensive behavior until being made aware of his/her actions. In the most serious instances of harassment, it is unreasonable to expect grievants to confront their perceived harassers; in these cases the grievant should enlist the help of a trained third party.

Swarthmore College is an educational institution, not a civil society with the responsibilities or resources of a civil society. It makes no promises or guarantees, express or otherwise, that it will undertake efforts to ferret out those who act to violate the proscriptions set out above. Those who regard themselves as having been targets of fraudulent or degrading expression, of course, may avail themselves of legal remedies at their own initiation and expense; e.g., regarding libel or slander.

Uncivil and Demeaning Non-Harassing Expression

As a member of Swarthmore College, one's moral responsibilities extend beyond formally sanctionable conduct. All of us, therefore, have a responsibility not to indulge in gratuitous offensive expression just because it may not be subject to official sanctions. Anonymous offensive expression is generally inexcusable, but the risk of harm in making adjudicable all forms of offensive expression would not only outweigh the benefits of official proscription, it would also seriously endanger academic freedom. Even when individuals (or groups) admit authorship, however, they act irresponsibly if they are unwilling to engage in a defense of their views, especially with those targeted.

Perpetrators of alleged non-adjudicable but uncivil expression should engage the objects of their attacks through discussion and, possibly, mediation. If they do not, however, no disciplinary action will be taken, though College officials or anyone else may publicly decry the content and manner of such expression.

It needs stressing again that the College will in no way formally discourage any argument, provided it does not include threats of violence, though what is said may be deplorable and very possibly more diatribe than argument.

1 Case materials will be reviewed in light of the AAUP statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes (adopted 1994).