Administrators at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire are forcing an education professor to undergo sexual harassment training.
The professor, Michael Fischler, isn't accused of sexual misconduct or of violating Title IX—the statute that mandates sex equality in education. He's not accused of doing anything wrong at all. He merely wrote a letter of support on behalf of a former student: a woman accused of a sex crime.
"Can a faculty member now never speak on the character of an ex-student when they are in trouble with the law or facing some kind of disciplinary hearing?" Fischler's son Mark, a professor of criminal justice at Plymouth State, asks The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf.
Fischler is right to be incredulous. The university's decision to subject a faculty member to Title IX training for this reason is a serious betrayal of free speech. It represents exactly the kind of chilling environment that has taken hold on some college campuses since the Obama administration introduced its overly broad guidance for interpreting Title IX.
Fischler's former student, Kristie Torbick, is a high school guidance counselor in her 30s. She was arrested for allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old student. She pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to serve between two-and-a-half and five years in prison.
Before Torbick plead guilty, her defense team asked Fischler if he would be willing to submit a letter testifying to Torbick's good behavior in his class. Fischler did so. He did not address the allegation—to do so would be inappropriate. He merely testified to her excellent "performance as a student." He essentially played the role of a character witness.
This did not sit well with some folks, writes Friedersdorf:
The defense submitted 23 "glowing letters" from "current and retired professors from Plymouth State University, high school guidance counselors, lawyers and psychologists," the New Hampshire Union Leader reported, dubbing it an attempt "to influence the sentencing of the admitted child sex offender." The newspaper added that the perpetrator's "support from the education and medical professions has sparked outrage."
It shouldn't be considered outrageous for an accused person's lawyer to assemble the best defense possible. And even people who allegedly committed very serious crimes deserve the presumption of innocence and a fair hearing.
Nevertheless, Plymouth State did not take kindly to the negative press. The university declined to re-hire one teacher for defending Torbick, and Fischler "agreed to complete additional Title IX Training and to work closely with PSU faculty, students, and staff to address the issues and the concerns created by their letters."
Fischler no longer agrees, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is speaking up on his behalf. For more on all that, read Friedersdorf's excellent post in full.
There are two big takeaways from this story. One, a public university is violating a professor's right to engage in speech that some people find offensive. Two, Title IX can be wielded as a weapon to squelch said speech. This is precisely why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is perfectly justified in seeking to rein in the federal government's Title IX guidance. The ability for professors to meaningfully discuss important subjects relating to sex—and in this case, the criminal justice system—is at risk.