Earlier this month, a feminist group filed a Title IX lawsuit against a Virginia University alleging the college has “systematically” failed to protect them from a “sexually hostile” school environment.
But while the statute was initially created curb sexual discrimination and violence, in this case, the group is suing over their school’s inaction in the face of “offensive speech” by other students on the social media app Yik Yak.
In it, they claim the university did not take sufficient action against “overtly sexist and/or threatening” messages by male students at the university in violation of Title IX and the 14th Amendment.
Popular messaging app Yik Yak lets users post anonymous messages (known as “yaks”) and pictures to conversations happening near them, lending itself to conversations in schools, halls of residence and the like.
According to Feminists United, members of their group were repeatedly “verbally assaulted” and “threatened” on the platform for bringing up the topic of sexual assault on campus.
Specifically, the group had been campaigning for a while for a better sexual assault prevention policy and asking that the university address “misogynistic” incidents on campus, such as a sexually explicit and derogatory chant — telling the story of having sex with a dead prostitute — performed by members of the men’s rugby team at a party.
They claim that by not blocking Yik Yak on the campus’ wifi network, the university fostered a sexually hostile environment and failed to “protect the Plaintiffs” and permitted their “ongoing, gender-based cyber harassment.”
The lawsuit alleges that despite being notified that students “feared for their safety” and “were not able to focus on their schoolwork”, Mary Washington displayed “deliberate indifference” to their plight — an offense punishable under Title IX.
Both the university and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit campus civil liberties group, dispute these claims.
FIRE representative Daniel Burnett told the College Fix in an email that “real” and tangible threats “encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”
In other words, the effect of speech on the victim must go far beyond feeling merely offended.
Yet according to FIRE Senior Program Officer of Legal and Public Advocacy Susan Kruth, most of the yaks quoted in the complaint involved “derogatory remarks or even invitations for students to engage in debate with members of Feminists United.”
Examples include such comments as “feminists need to chill their tits” or “this feminist needs to calm the hell down.”
According to UMW Associate Vice President, Anna Billingsey, the university has, in response to the lawsuit, taken a number of “proactive initiatives” including hiring a Title IX investigator and “requiring Title IX/sexual violence training for all faculty, staff, and students.”
Atlanta-based Yik Yak, which has often been accused of facilitating anonymous harassment in schools, has recently announced it was shutting down, citing “management miscues, fickle users and school bans.”