The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled to reinstate both the Title IX sex discrimination claim and part of the Title IX retaliation claim, while affirming the dismissal of the § 1983 claim and the remainder of the retaliation claim. This ruling represents a reversal on most grounds from the U.S. District Court’s dismissal in September 2017, allowing the plaintiffs’ core claims to proceed in the district court.
The case, Feminists Majority Foundation v. University of Mary Washington, originated with a 2015 complaint filed by students and women’s rights organizations with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the University failed to take appropriate action in response to threats of sexual assault and cyber-harassment against students on the messaging app, Yik Yak. The University claimed that it could not take any steps to protect students from anonymous online sexual harassment out of fear that it might violate the harassers’ free speech rights.
The Fourth Circuit rejected the University’s arguments, and asserted that University officials had an obligation to investigate and take action to protect the students against online sexual harassment. The Court held that the University could not “turn a blind eye” to the egregious sexual harassment that pervaded its campus simply because the harassment took place in “cyberspace.” On the retaliation claims, the Fourth Circuit ruled that universities can be liable under Title IX for student-on-student retaliatory harassment. The Court held that the University’s indifference to the escalating harassment faced by the students after they spoke out against sexual harassment is a valid claim and should not have been dismissed.
The Fourth Circuit also held for the first time that students at public universities have a constitutional right to an educational environment free from student-on-student sexual harassment. This ruling sends a strong message to officials at public universities that they could be individually liable if they fail to take appropriate action in response to complaints of sexual harassment.
This is a major decision by the Fourth Circuit, which will have an important impact on how universities handle cases of harassment in the future.