The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis became the subject of a Title IX retaliation complaint after she wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education decrying the state of sexual politics on college campuses. Her alleged offense occurred in a brief mention of sexual harassment allegations against another Northwestern professor and related facts.
A costly and time-consuming investigation ensued. In the end, Kipnis was cleared. Any other outcome would have been patently absurd. Nearly as absurd is the fact that Northwestern felt compelled to launch a legal investigation of the complaint in the first place, and that Northwestern, like many other schools, fears losing federal funding (even if only temporarily) should it opt for a more rational course. (Blame the feds for that.)
At this point, one might think those who filed the complaint against Kipnis would go about with their lives and forget this episode ever happened. As Brian Leiter commented: "The only sensible response to events of the last week is a mea culpa for having abused Title IX by filing a frivolous retaliation complaint against lawful speech by a faculty member with no professional or other connection with the graduate student victim of sexual harassment." Whatever the merits of the sexual harassment claims made against the other professor, no reasonable person could believe that Kipnis engaged in sanctionable conduct by failing to embrace the position of those who had claimed sexual harassment by another professor—or so you might think.
Last week, one of the complainants posted an anonymous essay on the Daily Nous philosophy blog. Her position (echoed in this post by Daily Nous editor Justin Weinberg) is that a handful of factual errors in Kipnis' essay justified the filing of a Title IX complaint and the subsequent investigation. An excerpt:
It is true that I think the argument Kipnis offered in her essay was intellectually silly and concretely harmful to individuals in our community, but it is simply false that the basis of the complaints raised against her had to do with the stance she takes on these vexed issues. We filed complaints because in her desire to weigh in on the theoretical debate, Kipnis took factual liberties with the specific issues facing students at Northwestern. Her erroneous representation of a particular case at Northwestern, involving living, breathing, human beings, caused tangible further harm to two women already found to have been sexually harassed by a Northwestern professor. Her callous refusal to correct those factual errors once they had been brought to her attention was a violation of the norms of academic integrity, which are a necessary precursor to academic freedom. . . .
I am a graduate student who knowingly involved myself in a legally volatile situation because Kipnis, intentionally or not, wrote false things about two students found by our university to be victims. I thought standing up for a fellow student in need was the right thing to do when the university was failing to respond to a complaint that one of these women filed, even to let her know they had received it, for almost two weeks (owing to a conflict of interest given a separate complaint filed against our Title IX coordinator). Kipnis was unwilling to make basic factual corrections, though our faculty handbook enjoins her to accuracy. It was made clear to her she was doing harm to two women who had been harmed enough. These women, though they are living what is, to some of us, an unimaginable nightmare, have exhibited bravery and resilience in pursuit of both their own rights and their educations. Now, Kipnis would have us think she is the victim of an inquisition because she was subjected to the very same brutal process that is the only means available to students to make their concerns "safely" known to the university. And we're the ones with the sense of vulnerability more befitting of children? Seriously? Yes, this is Kafkaesque.
Kipnis is not buying it—nor should she. Her response, also on the Daily Nous, highlights the ridiculousness of this whole episode. Here's are some excerpts:
So much has been written about the Title IX complaints against me and the recent Chronicle essay I wrote discussing them that I haven't tried to keep up, let alone respond to inaccuracies, which have been plentiful. I also generally don't respond to critics: people are allowed to disagree or say what they want about what I write; I'd rather think about the next article than defend the previous ones. There's only so much you can control in the world, and what people say about what you write isn't one of them.
But I do want to correct the misimpression created by "Anonymous" that the Title IX cases against me had to do, primarily, with factual inaccuracies. It's irritating to read something inaccurate that's purporting to combat inaccuracy.
I made a few small, insubstantial factual errors-of the sort corrected every day in newspapers like the New York Times-in trying to condense the publically available documents about various lawsuits involving Professor Ludlow down to two paragraphs. . . .
The irony of the Title IX complaints is that the complainants somehow completely misread swathes of my essay that had nothing whatsoever to do with the graduate student's case-along with a subsequent tweet-as referring to the grad student. The Title IX investigators painstakingly verified that these were misreadings, following a 72 day investigation. Their additional finding was that whatever errors I made in the piece were both minor and unintentional, and more importantly, could not be construed, by a "reasonable person," as either retaliatory or creating a chilling effect on anyone's ability to report sexual misconduct. . . .
I understand why the complainants wish I'd written the essay from their perspective rather than my own. And I better understand, after reading through the two 60-page reports on the case-as I was permitted to do once the case was resolved-some of the negative feelings my essays may have provoked. I even understand why, once "My Title IX Inquisition" came out (to generally positive response), the complainants might now want to dial back on the specifics of their charges, which look even more extreme in retrospect. The bottom line is that bringing Title IX complaints over exceedingly minor errors in a publication you disagree with and naming them "retaliation" is an abuse of the process. To then keep on pressing a bad case in public even after it's been arbitrated and you've been told you're wrong, is worthy of a correction.
For the record, I don't think I'm any sort of victim, and I do think the Title IX process worked, though after a massive waste of resources. (I'm guessing 75K or more in legal fees, having now seen the reports.)
Whether Kipnis is properly labeled a "victim" or not, it is a travesty that a prominent university would investigate a professor for writing an opinion essay. That a university could waste thousands of dollars in the process, only compounds the matter. Even assuming Kipnis mangled her account of the underlying sexual harassment controversy, the filing of a formal complaint is an exceedingly illiberal response.
Leiter also has a bit more here.