Revised stalking, threat policies at University of Missouri may make punishment more difficult
The iconic columns of the University of Missouri-Columbia campus (University of Missouri photo).
The University of Missouri’s redefined stalking and threat policies use language from a June Supreme Court decision that might make it more difficult to punish people who engage in stalking or make threats.
The UM System Board of Curators voted Sept. 7 to approve amendments to the UM System’s Collected Rules and Regulations, specifically the definitions of stalking and threats in the Standard of Conduct and sexual harassment policies. According to the executive summary proposed to the curators, the revisions include a “recklessness standard based on language used in the Supreme Court’s opinion.”
The new standard set in Counterman v. Colorado is a more subjective test for threats that requires proof that an individual consciously disregarded a substantial risk that their speech would inspire fear. The university system’s policies did not previously include a standard based on intent.
MU is one of the first public universities in Missouri and the Southeastern Conference to implement the high court’s language into its definitions of threats and stalking.
Daxton “Chip” Stewart is a professor and assistant provost for research compliance journalism at Texas Christian University.
“The bar is now higher to punish students or employees that engage in stalking or threatening behavior, and that does not make the world a better or safer place for those who are being stalked or threatened,” Stewart said.
University spokesperson Christian Basi said these changes will affect pending Title IX reports and cases in the Office of Institutional Equity.
“We regularly follow legislation and legal proceedings that could impact the university,” Basi said. “When the ruling came down at the end of June, we started working to determine how we needed to comply with the law.”
The case concerned a Colorado man named Billy Counterman who sent hundreds of threatening messages over two years to a musician in his area. Counterman was convicted under a state statute but appealed the decision, arguing the messages were not “true threats” because he did not intend them as such. He continued to appeal his conviction through the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court. It eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where his conviction was reversed and the statute was struck down.
“The First Amendment scholar and advocate in me generally likes it when the court protects more speech rather than less, and this certainly does that,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the court had to reach to draw parallels between true threats and other unprotected speech like defamation. Intent has long been a part of the high court’s test for defamation, but Stewart said it was novel to apply the test to threats.
“The court treated (true threats and defamation) like similar kinds of things when I really don’t think they are,” Stewart said. “… Words are different than violence, and threats are really about violence.”
Stewart explained that this heightened bar of proof for stalking and threats does not originate with MU’s policy change, but from the necessity for all states to comply with the new federal standard — affecting all disciplinary considerations at public universities across the country.
But most other public universities, including those in Missouri and the Southeastern Conference, have not implemented similar changes.
Many, like Texas A&M University and Missouri Southern State University, are planning to review this issue when the U.S. Department of Education releases the new Title IX regulations.
“We’re pleased to see the (UM System) revising its policies to import this standard,” said Laura Beltz, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “Revising policies to better protect free speech will reduce the chilling effect on expression … and will assist the administrators … in applying them narrowly to target unlawful, threatening expression while safeguarding protected speech.”
FIRE filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Counterman and the reversal of his conviction prior to the decision.
Matthew Huffman, chief public affairs officer at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the language change also brings the system’s definition closer to Missouri’s state statute on stalking, which already contains an intent standard.
“I consider that a good thing because the closer (policies) mirror state statutes, the stronger they are,” Huffman said.
For those looking to report stalking or threats at any UM System campus, Huffman recommended navigating the process — and the recent threats standard — with an experienced advocate.
“If you’re someone who’s experienced stalking, it can be intimidating to do that all on your own,” Huffman said. “There are trained experts in the community who can provide safe, free and confidential services to help them navigate their case.”
Local service providers can be found at the coalition’s public directory. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233, and the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.
This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.
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