On December 19, 2018, in a major victory for students nationwide, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a historic decision in Feminist Majority Foundation et al. v. University of Mary Washington et al.
In the first federal decision of its kind, the court ruled that universities have obligations under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution to investigate and take action to end sex-based harassment and threats targeting students on campus through social media. The court also ruled that universities cannot hide behind the First Amendment’s free speech protections as an excuse for not taking action.
Furthermore, the court determined that students at public universities have the right under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause to take claims against individual school administrators who may be found personally liable for failing to take action against student-on-student sexual harassment.
“The Fourth Circuit has emphatically stated that it is the legal duty of universities to take action against sexual harassment and threats on social media, and that failure to act amounts to deliberate indifference to gender-based discrimination in violation of Title IX,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Unlike the current Department of Education under Secretary DeVos, the Fourth Circuit is committed to enforcing Title IX and protecting students from sex-based discrimination. The court understands that whether harassment is online or in person, the impact is the same: students are cheated out of a safe learning environment.”
Smeal continued, “I am very proud that the Feminist Majority Foundation took action to help our affiliate, Feminists United, fight for a safe campus free from online sexual harassment. Feminists United, as well as individually named members, were targeted by fellow students with over 700 anonymous messages of cyber-stalking, sexual harassment, and threats of rape and murder on a social media platform. Their university took no action to investigate who was responsible for the threats and refused to take any meaningful steps to end the threats and harassment.”