Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Reasonable Women Don't Consider Man's Unwanted Advances to be "Severe" Harassment, Says NJ Supreme Court

Yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed lower courts' dismissal of a complaint against Princeton Theological Seminary filed by two female students. Beth Godfrey and Jennifer Kile had alleged that the school violated Title IX and New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination when it failed to protect them from the unwanted amorous advances of a seventy-year old alumnus, William Miller, who lived on campus and had taken to hanging around the seminary. The court, however, did not consider Miller's conduct to be severe and pervasive. The crux of the court's reasoning is here:
Objectively viewed, Godfrey's encounters with Miller occurred over a period of years and involved sitting with him during lunch at a school cafeteria table with others, seeing him at three Friday Night Fellowship gatherings, receiving a couple of social invitations as well as a Christmas parcel containing a Christmas card and Winnie the Pooh note cards, and finding five messages on her telephone answering machine in which Miller became more urgent and persistent in his pursuit of a date with her. She also ran into him in a local Hallmark store.

Kile's interactions over a similarly lengthy period of time involved three innocuous encounters in the library, receipt of a package containing religious articles, including a devotional book and scripture card, and a Christmas card and newsletter, the cafeteria/chapel incident, and the e-mail that she received while in England, to which she did not respond.

The events are intentionally described in sterile terms, stripped of the overlay of Godfrey's and Kile's subjective reactions to these interactions, which comprised most of their testimony. Indeed, Kile described herself as “on the lookout for him,” “on guard,” “freaked out” by Miller's decision to attend the chapel service because Kile had said that she would be there, and “stalked.” Godfrey also was disturbed by her feeling that Miller was “monitoring ... [her] comings and goings,” and she described herself as “distress[ed]” by his presence. However, plaintiffs' subjective responses to the allegedly harassing conduct do not control, or otherwise affect, the determination of whether the conduct is severe or pervasive, which requires application of the reasonable-woman standard. Viewed from that perspective, we have no doubt that the trial court and the appellate majority correctly regarded the totality of that evidence as falling short of severe or pervasive conduct that a reasonable woman would determine to constitute sexual harassment.
What bothers me about this opinion is that in its over-emphasis on whether the plaintiffs were "reasonable" in their reaction to a creepy stalker, the court looses sight of how little the seminary had to do to address the problem and make the plaintiffs more comfortable. The seminary even admitted that Miller had no formal connection to the school. So why were they so protective of his right to hang around? Why not ask him to stay out of the dining halls, dorms, and campus center? As the court notes elsewhere in the opinion, the seminary's dean would not take this action because "a male student had become irate when he discovered that he could not invite Miller to eat with him in the Campus Center." The NJ Supreme Court is saying that it's not a discriminatory response to favor the rights of men to merely eat lunch in the campus center over the rights of women to go to school without harassment. Even if the court was right that the harassment was severe only from the plaintiffs' subjective point of view, I don't think that's fair.

Decision is: Godfrey v. Princeton Theological Seminary, 2008 WL 2951891 (N.J. Aug. 4, 2008).