Like a lot of other young women, I’ve received my fair share of online harassment. Name a slur for women or Jews, and I’ve been called it on Twitter. Inevitably, that abuse spikes when I speak out about issues important to me. That’s why I’m particularly proud that today the National Women’s Law Center and almost 50 of our allies filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of student activist victims of cyber harassment.
A little bit of background: a few years ago, bad ass feminist students at the University of Mary Washington were subject to brutal harassment on Yik Yak, an anonymous app that eventually shut down because it became so synonymous with harassment and bullying in school. Basically, anyone could log on to Yik Yak and, without ever sharing their name, post messages to anyone in 1.5 mile radius. At Mary Washington, harassers used that platform to target female students with detailed death and rape threats.
You’d think the university administration would have been concerned. Yet instead the school told the victims that they were on their own. Mary Washington administrators even sent an email to the whole student body saying the school wouldn’t do anything about the harassment, hiding behind the First Amendment and essentially reassuring the wrongdoers that they’d never be held accountable.
So, the students and the Feminist Majority Foundation sued, represented by our great lawyer friends at Katz, Marshall, and Banks. They say that, in failing to act, Mary Washington violated the federal civil rights law known as Title IX, which requires schools to address sexual harassment against students. The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit.
Here’s the simple truth: the University of Mary Washington needed to do something to protect its students. Sure, cyber harassment poses new, hard problems for schools in living up to their Title IX responsibilities: it’s certainly harder to take action against a student whose name you don’t know than one you do. But these obstacles aren’t insurmountable.
In our brief, we describe different solutions Mary Washington could have pursued. Just like a school could investigate the identity of a student who left an anonymous threatening note in a locker by asking the right questions, Mary Washington could have taken steps to try to figure out who was harassing female classmates on Yik Yak. (Have you ever tried to keep a secret on a college campus?) The university also should have offered support to the affected students so that, whether or not the school could stop the harassment and punish the wrongdoers, the victims could feel safe. Importantly, none of these options infringe on the important First Amendment free speech rights of students.
Yet despite all these options, Mary Washington did nothing. And if the court says that’s ok, giving other schools permission to ignore cyber harassment, it’s students who are already marginalized on campus who will be hurt the most. As we detail in our brief, women, LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, and religious minorities are particularly vulnerable to online abuse.
For those who haven’t experienced online harassment, it’s easy to dismiss this abuse as trivial just because it happens on a screen. But anyone with first-hand experience can testify that cyber abuse is just as real as its analogs IRL. For that reason, it’s crucial that schools address all forms of harassment, whether it is communicated face-to-face or over an app.
To learn more about the case, read our brief here.