University admits First Amendment protects professor’s letter to the editor
Washington, D.C. – Facing the threat of a lawsuit, the University of Oklahoma agreed this week to re-examine and, where appropriate, revise its sexual harassment policy to prevent violations of the First Amendment. The agreement is part of a settlement with Professor David Deming, who faced harassment proceedings for a letter he wrote to the campus newspaper. In the agreement, the University admitted that Deming’s letter was “protected speech under the First Amendment” and did not violate the school’s harassment policy. The University also agreed not to “retaliate against [Deming] in any way for the letter.”
The First Amendment showdown at the University began when Professor Deming wrote to the Oklahoma Daily, responding to a reprinted column by Joni Kletter, who argued that “easy access to a handgun allows everyone in this country . . . to quickly and easily kill as many random people as they want.” Countering Kletter’s justification for gun control, Deming’s letter noted that her “easy access to a vagina enables her to quickly and easily have sex with as many random people as she wants.” He added his hope that “Kletter is as responsible with her equipment as most gun owners are with theirs.”
Although Professor Deming’s letter mentioned only Ms. Kletter, a Yale student, several University of Oklahoma students and professors filed harassment charges against him, claiming his letter increased “the potential danger . . . of sexual harassment and rape” on campus. As a result, the University ordered that Deming be tried on sexual harassment charges. But when faced with an imminent federal lawsuit, the University backed down and cancelled the May 5 harassment proceeding. Deming’s suit was put on hold, but it loomed large until this week’s settlement agreement.
“The University’s recognition that sexual harassment charges can’t trump the constitutional guarantee of free speech sets an important precedent,” said Curt Levey, Director of Legal & Public Affairs at the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which represents Deming. “If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that people are free to express controversial – even politically incorrect – opinions in public forums such as college newspapers, without fear of punishment,” he added.