Calling on Federal Government to Protect College Students from Social Media Harassment and on Campus

October 21, 2015

Today, Katz Marshall & Banks partner Debra Katz participated at a press conference at the National Press Club announcing the submission of a request to the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, to issue new guidance for colleges and universities to do more to protect students from pervasive harassment and threats based on sex, race, or LGBT status carried out through anonymous social media applications, such as Yik Yak.  Seventy-two national and local women’s and civil rights groups signed on to this request.

According to Ms. Katz, students on college campuses throughout the country have with increasing frequency used anonymous social medial applications, such as Yik Yak, to target women students, students of color, and sexual minorities with harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation – with impunity. Earlier this year, students at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), for example, were threatened through Yik Yak with rape and murder after they spoke out against rape culture. The fact that Yik Yak’s posting is anonymous, and that the online app is accessible without using university servers, has led many universities to disclaim responsibility for harassment and threats that occur on that platform, even though these threats are made on campus and significantly interfere with students’ equal access to education.

At the news conference today, Ms. Katz announced that the Office of Civil Rights has accepted for investigation the complaint she filed against the University of Mary Washington in May, charging the school with failing to protect students from a threatening and sexually hostile campus environment fostered by sexist, sexualized and violent posts via Yik Yak.

Finally, Ms. Katz released a letter to Yik Yak’s founders, Chief Executive Officer Tyler Droll and Stephen Brooks Buffington, calling on them to strengthen Yik Yak’s policies to prevent hateful targeting and harassment of students on college campuses. “Yik Yak can and must take responsibility to prevent its app from continuing to be used as a weapon to target individuals and vulnerable groups and as a megaphone for hate mongering.” Ms. Katz announced at the press conference that “if Yik Yak and other app creators fail to embrace these corporate responsibilities on their own, we will work for a policy-based or political solution to this problem. We will fight for the equal rights of all students under Title IX, whatever forms discrimination may take. The technological advances of the 21st century cannot circumvent the promise of equal rights, and the world of anonymous social media should not provide an end-run around federal law.”

To read more coverage regarding this issue, see below.

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