72 Women's and Civil Rights Groups Urge Education Department to Issue New Federal Guidelines to Protect Students from Harassment and Cyber-threats
WASHINGTON: Seventy-two national and local women's and civil rights groups joined together today to urge the Department of Education to issue new guidance for colleges and universities to do more to protect students from pervasive harassment and threats based on sex, race, or LGBT status carried out through anonymous social media applications, such as Yik Yak.
Students on college campuses throughout the country have with increasing frequency used anonymous social medial applications, such as Yik Yak, to target women students, students of color, and sexual minorities with harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation with impunity. Earlier this year, students at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), for example, were threatened through Yik Yak with rape and murder after they spoke out against rape culture. In 2013, student activists at Dartmouth College who spoke out against sexual assault, racism and homophobia became the target of anonymous online posts declaring that they would be raped, lynched and shot.
"When Feminists United told the UMW administration that our members were feeling unsafe in light of the threats and hate being propagated on Yik Yak, UMW offered us no real solutions or protection," said Feminists United at University of Mary Washington President Julia Michels. "Instead, we were told that the First Amendment prevented the school from taking action and that we should report the abuse to Yik Yak. The burden was placed on us- the targets- to protect ourselves even though the school has both the resources and the responsibility to create a safe campus for everyone."
"The fight to achieve equal educational opportunities is far from over," said Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) President Eleanor Smeal. "No woman, person of color, or LGBT student should be afraid to go to college classes or participate in campus activities because they are being harassed or threatened to be raped or killed. This must end. Colleges and universities must let everyone know that intimidating students, whether in person or anonymously through social media, will not be tolerated, instances will be investigated, and perpetrators will be held accountable."
The fact that Yik Yak's posting is anonymous, and that the online app is accessible without using university servers has led many universities to disclaim responsibility for harassment and threats that occur on that platform, even though these threats are made on campus and significantly interfere with students' equal access to education.
Today, a broad coalition of civil rights groups urge the OCR to issue clear guidance concerning anonymous social media: information about what steps educational institutions must take to determine whether unlawful harassment is occurring on these platforms, without forcing victims themselves to police these platforms, and a clear path that educational institutions must follow to identify and prosecute anonymous harassers.
According to Smeal, "So much of young people's social interaction now takes place online. It is, therefore, essential that OCR make clear that an educational community that permits, even protects, vicious discrimination on the basis of gender is not fulfilling its obligations under the law- whether the harassment takes place online or face to face. "
Also today, Debra S. Katz, founding partner at Katz Marshall & Banks, released a letter to Yik Yak's founders, Chief Executive Officer Tyler Droll and Stephen Brooks Buffington, calling on them to strengthen Yik Yak's policies to prevent hateful targeting and harassment of students on college campuses.
"Yik Yak can and must take responsibility to prevent its app from continuing to be used as a weapon to target individuals and vulnerable groups and as a megaphone for hate mongering," said Katz, whose firm earlier this year filed a Title IX complaint concerning Yik Yak against UMW on behalf of individual students, Feminists United and FMF. "Yik Yak cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the egregious incidents of sexual and racial harassment and threats on college campuses happening on its platform while simultaneously touting the app for its ability to create 'community.' Yik Yak can, and must, do more to help remedy this problem."
Ms. Katz also announced that the Office of Civil Rights has accepted for investigation the complaint she filed against the University of Mary Washington in May, charging the school with failing to protect students from a threatening and sexually hostile campus environment fostered by sexist, sexualized and violent posts via Yik Yak.