A coalition of more than 70 women’s and civil rights groups today called on the Department of Education to remind post-secondary schools that it’s their legal obligation to protect students from online anonymous harassment under Title IX and the Civil Rights Act.
In the wake of threats faced by women students at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) on the anonymous, location-based social media app Yik Yak, the coalition led by the Feminist Majority Foundation, sent a letter to Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon asking them to remind colleges and universities that they are required to protect students from harassment on the basis of sex, race and LGBT status, whether the harassment takes place in person or online.
“So much of young people’s social interaction now takes place online,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “It is therefore essential that [the Office of Civil Rights] make clear that an educational community that permits, even protects, vicious discrimination on the basis of gender is not fulfilling its obligations under the law.”
Earlier this year, a UMW student group, Feminists United, filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education after several of its members were threatened with rape and murder on Yik Yak.
“When Feminists United told the UMW administration that our members were feeling unsafe in light of the threats and hate being propagated on Yik Yak, UMW offered us no real solutions or protection,” said Julia Michels, president of Feminists United, in a statement. “Instead, we were told that the First Amendment prevented the school from taking action and that we should report the abuse to Yik Yak. The burden was placed on us—the targets—to protect ourselves even though the school has both the resources and the responsibility to create a safe campus for everyone.”
At a press conference today, attorney Debra Katz, whose firm filed the Title IX complaint on behalf of Feminists United, announced that the Office of Civil Rights has taken up the complaint and will be investigating. She also stood in support of the 72-group coalition and called on Yik Yak to take responsibility for the harassing statements being made on its platform.
“Yik Yak cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the egregious incidents of sexual and racial harassment and threats on college campuses happening on its platform, while simultaneously touting the app for its ability to create ‘community,’” she said.
Yik Yak is used by students on at least 1,600 campuses nationwide. The company has taken steps to avoid misuse of its app, even blocking access at many high schools and middle schools to prevent online bullying. And while it allows colleges and universities to request to be “geofenced”—blocked from accessing the app using GPS coordinates—it has yet to respond to at least one school that made such a request this year.
Students across the country have spoken out against Yik Yak after facing threats and harassment. At Emory College, student groups publicly rejected the app, declaring it to be a forum for racism and hate. And at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the student government called on administrators to ban the use of Yik Yak on campus.
Professors have even waded into the fray, attempting to protect students by flooding the app with sunny messages. Professors at Colgate University staged a “Yak Back,” sending messages encouraging students to eat well and rest during exams, and offering other supportive words. Many black students and women students expressed thanks to the teachers for contributing to a more positive online space.
But while some schools have taken action—Syracuse University, for example, denounced Yik Yak after a group of students of color were referred to as “monkeys”—administrators say there’s little they can do to stop the app’s use on campus, besides banning it from the school’s wireless network.
That may be true, but Title IX does require schools to protect students from harassment and intimidation, and the advocates’ message today was clear: enough is enough.
“No woman, person of color, or LGBT student should be afraid to go to college classes or participate in campus activities because they are being harassed or threatened to be raped or killed. This must end,” said Smeal in a statement. “Colleges and universities must let everyone know that intimidating students, whether in person or anonymously through social media, will not be tolerated, instances will be investigated and perpetrators will be held accountable.”