CU's silencing of Patti Adler could have a chilling effect, the professor's supporters say

Concern over the University of Colorado's treatment of sociology professor Patti Adler is rippling through the academic world. Yesterday the National Coalition Against Censorship , ACLU of Colorado, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Student Press Law Center issued a joint statement taking aim at CU for its attempts to silence Adler because of her long-running class exploring the issue of prostitution, and asked that Adler's popular "Deviance in U.S. Society" course -- with Adler as instructor -- be reinstated "without further reviews or conditions." And in fact, yesterday CU determined Adler could resume teaching the class -- but she has not yet decided if she will, according to the Daily Camera.

Adler reported in December that she had been advised that the course was being cancelled, and that she was given the choice to return but not teach the course, or to take early retirement. CU's actions were reportedly due to concerns that a classroom exercise in which teaching assistants role-play as prostitutes might constitute sexual harassment; Adler has used the exercise for many years in the course, which regularly attracts 500 students. Before CU revealed that decision, a group of Adler's supporters sent out their statement. "We felt it was critical to organize a national response in this case both to support academic freedom and free speech on campus, and to clarify that sexual harassment laws and policies were never intended to chill legitimate academic inquiry into subjects like sexuality and sexual deviance. The distinction is essential to a myriad of important subjects of university study, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Courbet's painting L'Origine du monde", said NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin, in explaining the joint statement.

"Classroom discussion of issues related to sex and sexuality is not sexual harassment," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. "By suggesting otherwise, and raising the possibility of disciplinary proceedings, the CU administration unjustifiably threatens to silence not only Professor Adler, but any professor whose classroom teaching may touch on sensitive topics."

The statement outlines a decade of landmark Supreme Court decisions defining sexual harassment, which must be "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" behavior of a sexual nature. In contrast, a "mere offensive utterance" in the classroom, or an "isolated instance" does not amount to sexual harassment.

NCAC and the other co-signers have dismissed CU's latest offer to reinstate Adler after a faculty review of her class as insufficient "since this course was apparently singled out for extraordinary scrutiny based solely on the content, in violation of fundamental First Amendment principles." Such a review "inevitably has a chilling effect, not only on Professor Adler, but on the faculty as whole and even on faculty at other Universities."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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