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Press Release

University of Mary Washington Failed to Act Against Severe Cyber Harassment that Targeted Female Students, Says NWLC Amicus Brief to 4th Circuit

Female students faced over 700 threats that included rape and death threats 

(Washington, D.C.) The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and law firm Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris, P.L.L.C, submitted an amicus brief late yesterday to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Feminist Majority Foundation, et al. v. University of Mary Washington, et al. The brief argues that the University, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, broke the law when it failed to take action to address the severe cyber harassment against female students that began in 2014—soon after they spoke out about sexual violence on campus. The students were harassed over 700 times through posts on the now-defunct social media app Yik Yak, which allowed users to share anonymous messages with any user within a 1.5 mile radius. The posts referred to women as “femicunts,” “feminazis,” “cunts,” “bitches,” “hoes,” “dikes,” and included these specific threats:  “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and [g)rape them in the mouth”; “Dandy’s about to kill a bitch…or two”; and “Can we euthanize whoever caused this bullshit?”

The Center’s brief argues that the University violated Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education, by failing to take action to even investigate the harassment—despite several pleas for help by female students and the escalating severity of the cyber harassment. The University wrongly claimed it could do nothing about the Yik Yak harassment, despite the fact that they could have tried to trace the identity of the harasser or asked Yik Yak to do so, as other schools have done in similar situations. Their refusal to take action subjected the students to a hostile environment that interfered with their ability to get an education. The brief calls on the Circuit Court to reverse the District Court’s dismissal of the case.

“During my senior year, I felt safest when I was in my apartment because I was terrified,” said Paige McKinsey, a plaintiff in this case and one of several students targeted by the online harassment. “I had to get to classes and extracurricular activities and always tried to walk in groups because I had no idea who was sending such violent threats and whether anyone would act on them. The harassment kept escalating. Several classmates and I asked school administrators on many occasions to help protect us but they said there was nothing they could do to stop it. They made it clear we were on our own.”

“Instead of taking immediate action to investigate the harassment and provide support services to the female students who were frightened, the University did next to nothing,” said Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “Electronic harassment is a serious threat that disproportionately targets women and girls, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, individuals with disabilities, and religious minorities. Schools have a responsibility to combat harassment—regardless of the form it takes—and create safe learning environments for all students.”

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For immediate release: December 20, 2017
Contact:  Maria Patrick (mpatrick@nwlc.org) or Olympia Feil (ofeil@nwlc.org)

If you are interested in interviewing the student plaintiffs in the case, please email Maria Patrick (mpatrick@nwlc.org)

The National Women’s Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women’s equality and opportunity.  The Center focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families including economic security, education, employment and health, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women.  For more information on the Center, visit: www.nwlc.org.