Wednesday, June 26

Scott Bays: UCLA’s definition of harassment must align with that of California


Victims of harassment seeking justice from the university may want to look elsewhere.

Unless their treatment was so severe it prevented them from accessing university resources, UCLA doesn’t think it counts as harassment.

The UCLA Student Conduct Code defines harassment as “conduct that is so severe and/or pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so substantially impairs a person’s access to the University programs or activities that the person is effectively denied equal access to the University’s resources and opportunities.”

That sounds pretty narrow. By contrast, Merriam-Webster defines the word “harass” as “to annoy persistently” or to “exhaust” or “fatigue.” Harassment is legally defined in California as a “credible threat of violence” that “seriously scares, annoys, or harasses someone and there is no valid reason for it.”

That’s a little broader than UCLA’s definition of harassment – and easier to recognize. Threats against students can seriously annoy them without impairing their “equal access” to university resources. The state of California would legally consider that harassment. UCLA may not.

This is because the student code of conduct places an unnecessary prerequisite on harassment cases: obstructing equal access. And this prerequisite lacks a formal definition in the student code of conduct, leaving it to Dean of Students Maria Blandizzi to decide.

That is a real issue. Obstruction of equal access to university resources is so subjective that the Office of the Dean of Students’ personal opinions on the matter effectively decide whether a case of illegal harassment is deemed a violation of the code of conduct or not.

UCLA needs to change the definition of harassment within the student code of conduct to match the legal definition in California.

This simple change would transform harassment investigations from being subjective to objective. No longer would harassment victims be forced to cross their fingers and hope the Dean of Students’ office sees it their way.

Intertwining harassment with subjectivity may not seem like a problem because the office can find some way in which a student’s equal access to university resources is obstructed if harassment has occurred.

And while that is certainly true, it ignores the massive problem defining harassment in this way presents.

There has only been one recent incident in which a student has been successfully charged with harassment, according to the Dean of Students’ office. But because it describes all dismissed allegations as lacking necessary evidence to continue the investigation, it is impossible to know how many potential harassment cases it has dismissed – and how many harassers continue to be unpunished.

To dismiss a harassment case because of lack of sufficient information is laughable. The decision of whether or not to charge a student with harassment ultimately relies upon proving subjectively that equal access was obstructed, not whether the events in question occurred. But obstruction of equal access lacks a definition in the student code of conduct, which is problematic when it’s in the hands of a single person to define.

Consider a student who threatens to beat up another student the next time they see each other in the residence hall, but the threatened student continues to frequent the building as always, despite fear of violence. While these threats are grounds for legal action, the dean may not find that this is harassment since the student continued to use the residence hall normally despite fear of violence. Thus, the threatened student’s equal access to university resources was not denied, and the aggressor gets off scot-free.

And there is reason to question the interests of the Dean of Students’ office. Its recent exclusion of student representatives from conduct hearings, where students appeal the Dean of the Students’ office’s disciplinary decisions, proved that it is not looking out for students’ best interests. The code of conduct promises that student representatives will be a part of these hearings to provide other points of view. However, the office violated these provisions. Therefore, it should not be granted unilateral power in deciding harassment, especially since students cannot appeal the decision not to take disciplinary action.

Charging harassment in this way undermines the entire concept of the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of a single person. Laws expressly serve the purpose of removing the subjectivity of an individual when meting out punishment. Arguing that deans will fairly charge harassment in a way consistent with California’s legal definition is questionable, given the current wording of the rules.

UCLA must broaden the definition of harassment in the student code of conduct to match that of the state of California. Doing this would realign the university’s system of justice with more easily identifiable signs rather than subjective opinion. With personal opinion replaced with a more concrete and easily provable set of guidelines, deans will not be able to dismiss cases of harassment without impunity.

Regardless, the Dean of Students’ office wants you to help preserve the integrity of the UCLA community. Perhaps it’ll help too. Just don’t count on it.

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Opinion columnist

Bays is an Opinion columnist.

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