Peter Pringle's America: You mustn't learn to fall in love

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The Independent Online
DURING the celebrations for Thomas Jefferson's 250th birthday last week there was much harrumphing about the unmentionable topic of his fine life; by which is meant his much- rumoured affair with the black slave Sally Hemings.

With the passing years, there have been repeated attempts to bring the affair out of the closet, mostly by Americans of African descent who cite oral histories in their claim to be descendants of Jefferson.

White custodians of the Jeffersonian legend indignantly maintain that he was morally incapable of having relations with a black woman. What they don't like to think about is that Jefferson was hypocritical about slavery.

His original draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced George III for promoting the slave trade, and he condemned slavery in his writings elsewhere. Yet he kept many slaves of his own. An open question is whether the visionary of American liberty, a man of such innate fairness, could have countenanced a relationship so obviously unequal; he being the all- powerful lord and master and Sally Hemings the obedient slave.

In the modern parlance of such relationships between employer and employee, Mr Jefferson's affair with Ms Hemings, if indeed it took place, would be open to charges of sexual harassment. This is an intriguing thought because just down the road from his Monticello plantation a debate is raging concerning power-sexual relations on the campus of the University of Virginia, which he founded.

The university is to vote this week on what may turn out to be America's stiffest guidelines on sexual harassment. The draft that has been drawn up by the university faculty calls for a total ban on relations between professors and students of either sex - even 'consensual relations' and even between professors and students they do not supervise.

Since Harvard University introduced guidelines on campus sex in the mid-Eighties, an increasing number of America's 3,500 colleges and universities have adopted rules against offensive behaviour. This is defined, mostly, as unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favours linked with academic advancement. Even in American high schools, incidents of sexual harassment, once lightly dismissed as mere teenage teasing, are now regarded as serious offences of sex discrimination and schools are having to develop their own policies on how to deal with it.

Few can argue with the need to bring the phenomenon of sexual harassment into the open and to debate it. As in other changes in the social behaviour of Americans, however, the desire to be politically correct drives some people beyond the bounds of reason and, by pushing the issue too far, they have encouraged a lot of people to start pushing back.

The inevitability of academic courtships is as old as Helose and Abelard and as common as autumn leaves in the quadrangle, as Robert Kretsinger, the chairman of the University of Virginia Faculty Senate, was quick to point out. The idea that such affairs of the heart can be banned by rule or statute is absurd.

When the Harvard faculty sent out its first circular on the subject, a copy dropped through the letter box of one of its most illustrious emeritus professors, John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been married for nearly half a century to a former student. Inquiring how he could atone for his past sins, Mr Galbraith was respectfully informed that his waywardness would be overlooked because it happened long ago, in another era when such relationships were less politically noticeable.

Should the University of Virginia pass its draconian rule, then it is bound to be challenged on campus as being unenforceable, and probably in the courts as unconstitutional. More sensible guidelines on other campuses require teachers dating students only to report their relationships to department heads and remove themselves from direct supervision of their young lovers.

So far the American courts have been reluctant to become involved in the issue, especially as the increased awareness of sexual harassment has now spread from the campuses to the high schools, where the issue has less to do with sexual relationships than with cloudier notions involving a state school's responsibility to protect its pupils from threats of sexual discrimination that could jeopardise their academic advancement.

There are many grey areas. Teasing, joking or flirting in a sexual manner might be deemed acceptable in some social settings or among some racial or ethnic groups but not among others. Codes against the use of sexual 'hate speech' between students have been challenged on the grounds that they violate the constitutional right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union takes the view that when someone takes offence at the utterance of the word 'bitch' it cannot always be regarded as harassment.

Even so, parents have sought, and received, damages against state schools. A pupil at a high school in Minnesota received dollars 15,000 from local government funds after the school failed to remove graffiti mentioning her name from the boys' toilet, despite repeated requests from her parents. As part of the settlement, the school agreed to report new graffiti on the toilet walls each day to local government officials, and to remove them.

It is hard to imagine how America's eminent political philosopher, T Jefferson, would have viewed the way his system has evolved. Being so fair-minded, he might have defended the authors of the graffiti by arguing their freedom of speech, however crude, was being violated. And how would he have voted at his university? Perhaps for the freedom of one and all, high and low, teacher and student, to fall in love.