Activist groups ask the Department of Education to address Yik Yak harassment

A coalition of feminist and civil rights organizations recently submitted a letter to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights asking the Department to issue guidance to universities regarding anonymous harassment on applications such as Yik Yak.

The letter, signed by 72 organizations including the National Organization for Women, Muslim Advocates and Human Rights Campaign, highlights what the groups see as troubling trends violating students’ civil rights. It argues that colleges are obligated under Title IX and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect students from anonymous harassment — most of which, the letter says, is sex- and race-based.

“Students who have been targeted by anonymous cyber harassment and assault – especially through Yik Yak, where the perpetrators, because of the geo-location feature of the application, are within the campus community – have reported that the harassment has interfered with their academic studies and that they have had to seek therapy, change their extra-curricular activities, and even take extra security precautions,” the letter stated.

Inside Higher Ed reported two of the signatories also filed a complaint against the University of Mary Washington, alleging the university did not respond to harassment on Yik Yak. Female students there were threatened with rape and murder via Yik Yak.

For the past year, colleges across the country have been questioning their role in policing anonymous speech protected by the First Amendment, but that is offensive and harmful for some students, The spring/summer edition of the Student Press Law Center’s Report magazine looked at Yik Yak as a new outlet for anonymous speech and how universities are handling the negative speech and online discourse.

Some have criticized the letter, including Washington, D.C. lawyer Hans Bader, who wrote a column for the website Liberty Unyielding arguing that this is an attack on free speech.

“Requiring colleges to punish what is perceived to be ‘race-based’ speech would endanger even viewpoints that are mainstream positions in society at large, but are disapproved of by politically-correct college campus administrators,” Bader wrote.

The letter attempted to preempt any free speech arguments, positing, “the First Amendment does not prevent schools from taking action to eliminate sex- and race-based harassment, whether that harassment occurs in-person or online.”

Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, but true threats are not.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, writer Eugene Volokh wrote that the true threats of attack and rape on anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak are constitutionally unprotected.

Still, he continued, “the coalition is arguing that [certain speech outlined in the letter] should be restricted precisely because of the viewpoints it expresses, and the offense and ‘hostile environment’ that those viewpoints cause.”

The letter provided examples of possible solutions for colleges, including “investigating all reports of online harassment, whether or not perpetrators are ‘anonymous,’ initiating campus disciplinary proceedings against individuals engaging in online harassment, geo-fencing of anonymous social media applications that are used to threaten, intimidate, or harass students, and barring the use of campus wi-fi to view or post to these applications.”

Some colleges like Utica College and Norwich University have already banned Yik Yak from their wi-fi networks. Others are considering the same.

Despite some of the vitriolic tone of some yaks, anonymous postings also have positive outcomes, supporters argue — the University of Michigan campus community discussed mental health issues after a suicide note was posted to Yik Yak.

Attempts to reach the Department of Education were unsuccessful. Yik Yak has not responded to request for comment.

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at 202-974-6318 or by email.