Column: Rudeness police

by John Banzhaf

Beware of GW's new rudeness police; they may be investigating you.

Suppose you've left GW for the day and are working at an office in a private building off campus. Suddenly someone you don't know, and who has no connection to GW, barges in. You tell him to leave, and he does. You go back to work, and figure everything is over.

But you're wrong. Months later you learn this person has filed a complaint against you with the University. As a result, you are requested by a high-level GW administrator to submit to a 30-minute interrogation to determine whether, in her opinion, your statement was "rude." In short, he or she wants to pass judgment on what you said.

You remind her that you were working as a private person in an off-campus building, and that the person who filed the complaint has no relationship to you or GW. The administrator then tells you that it is now "University policy/practice to respond to all allegations of misconduct, including allegations from individuals who have no formal connections with our institution."

This isn't a fantasy. It actually happened to at least one person - which suggests that it likely happened to many. This means that, as word of GW's new policy spreads, anyone with a beef of any kind against a GW student or faculty member can force them to be subjected to a GW investigation complete with interrogations.

Indeed, even if nothing ever happened, any person can threaten to file a complaint and thereby trigger an investigation of you - because they don't like you or what you said in class or elsewhere, or even because they want to force you to do something.

It wasn't supposed to work that way. When the GW administration first set up an anonymous Compliance Line, this new complaint system was unanimously rejected by the Faculty Senate, condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and caused considerable adverse publicity for the University.

A major Faculty Senate concern was that this new complaint mechanism might lead to far-ranging and possibly secret investigations of petty concerns; including investigations of a person's statements which could have a chilling effect upon free speech, and the academic freedom of students and faculty.

In response, the administration apparently agreed that the Compliance Line would have only a very limited jurisdiction. Specifically, GW agreed that Compliance Line investigations would be narrowly restricted to complaints about "potential threats to health and safety and suspected misconduct in violation of laws, regulations, University policies, and requirements of outside agencies having supervision over University activities."

When the Senate's representatives agreed to this language, it was understood that the term "University policies" was limited to official policies the University has formally adopted, and had published on its website. This way, people would know what conduct was prohibited.

But now GW has interpreted that to mean that the University will respond to any and all allegations of misconduct - including "rudeness -" provided the complaints are made by any means other than through the Compliance Line, in a letter or fax for example.

In other words, "misconduct" is no longer narrowly limited. It can now mean anything any administrator thinks it should cover, including mere "rudeness."

So, if someone objects to what you said in class or at your job or in a bar, or even in a "private" publication like The Hatchet, he or she can file a complaint, and the University will now investigate by interrogating you.

Also, if someone wants your class notes, to be invited to your party, or just wants a date, he can threaten to file a complaint, even a trumped up one. And, under what is apparently a new but unannounced policy, GW says that the filing of any complaint will trigger an investigation, including an interrogation of the respondent.

If you think the University should butt out of your private off-campus activities, and not try to police what you say to strangers off campus, here's what you can do:

First, students can request help from their student government; faculty members can appeal to the Faculty Senate; and GW staff can use established channels to see that investigations are limited to matters in which the University has a legitimate interest.

Second, if anyone you know has been subjected to such an interrogation and/or investigation, please e-mail me at prof@banzhaf.net and I will notify FIRE, an organization which sues administrators who violate the academic freedom of students and faulty.

In the meantime, don't say anything that could hurt anyone's feelings or might otherwise be regarded as insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain rude. You too could become the subject of a secret investigation including an interrogation, and an official determination of whether or not the administration approves of what you said and how you said it.

-The writer is a GW professor of public interest law.

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