Federal law doesn't bar American professors from sexually harassing overseas students who take online courses with them, judge rules

In a reminder that the law doesn't always keep up with technology, a federal judge in Boston today tossed a French student's Title IX sexual-harassment complaint against an MIT professor because she never set foot in the US and Title IX only applies to actions that take place between people on American soil.

But US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor did not completely dismiss Faiza Harbi's lawsuit against now former professor Walter Lewin and MIT for the dick picks he sent her and the live masturbation sessions on Skype she says he repeatedly performed. Saylor ruled Harbi did have possible claims against the professor and the school under a Massachusetts state law against sexual harassment and should get the chance to make her case that MIT and Lewin were negligent in their actions.

In his ruling, Saylor acknowledged Title IX might be outdated because its 20th-century authors never considered the possibility of cross-border education via computer networks:

Title IX may well be outdated. Online learning is a relatively new phenomenon, and the statute was promulgated in 1972, in a much different technological environment. ... But this Court is not empowered to “fix” outdated statutes, no matter how worthy the goal may be. Rather, “[i]t is for Congress . . . and not for this Court, to rewrite the statute to reflect changed circumstances.” First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n of Puerto Rico v. Ruiz De Jesus, 644 F.2d 910, 914 (1st Cir. 1981) (quoting Comtronics, Inc. v. Puerto Rico Telephone Company, 553 F.2d 701, 707 (1st Cir. 1977)).

According to Saylor's decision, Harbi signed up in 2013 for an online MIT course called "For the Love of Physics," taught by Levin, then 77 and a professor emeritus at the school. After Harbi set up a Facebook group for fellow students in the course, Saylor wrote, Lewin contacted her and asked to be allowed to join the group.

In November 2013, Lewin and Harbi began an electronic correspondence that lasted for a period of several months. They communicated over e-mail, through their Facebook pages, and eventually by video calls on Skype. Lewin and Harbi never met one another in person; at all times, Lewin was in the United States and Harbi was in France.

Beginning in about December 2013, many of the communications between Lewin and Harbi became explicitly sexual in nature. Among other things, the complaint alleges that Lewin told Harbi that he was sexually attracted to her, he sent her nude photographs, and repeatedly masturbated on camera in front of her. During their communications, Harbi disclosed that she had been raped as a young child and that she had low self-esteem as a result. Lewin responded that he would try to help her restore her self-confidence. He also told her that he planned to get her "back on the road sexually by teaching her to masturbate."

The complaint alleges that Lewin suggested that Harbi's successful completion of the course was conditioned on their continuing correspondence. It further alleges that Harbi did not break off the relationship for fear of being removed from the course.

According to the complaint, in August 2014, Harbi realized for the first time that the correspondence with Lewin was "highly inappropriate." As a result, she developed extreme anxiety, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, became unable to sleep, and began to self-mutilate. At some point, she was hospitalized for those symptoms.

After Harbi complained to MIT, the college investigated and decided to sever its ties with Lewin for violating its internal policies on sexual harassment. Saylor writes a college report laid out the issues involving Lewin:

Among other things, it recounted Lewin's statements that he had exchanged nude photographs of himself with multiple other women and had previously "taught another woman how to masturbate" through Facebook. When asked whether his remarks concerning masturbation were appropriate, he stated that he "was raised in a Dutch culture, whereby a subject like this is openly discussed. We have a much more direct approach, which can hurt people too by the way. You, as an American, would not have thought this was appropriate. For me, it's fine."

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Comments

I took this course

By on

I took this edX course with Lewin through MITx; it was the best online course with tens of thousands of online students ranging in age from 13 to 85 from all over the world. I've completed over 50 online courses and this one stands out. Lewin is a master of teaching physics and the community on the course forum was incredible. I got a 96 in the class.

When people asked me why I took this and other online classes I told them, it was mental masturbation.

Lol, I guess that was more true for some others.

The old goat.

But the "student" was in her 30s, Lewin had no control over grading or enrollment and there was no need for Facebook groups because the course forum was so strong.

I call BS on the complaint and thirty wacks with a wet noddle for the old goat to spank his monkey with.

I might be reading too much into what was said and not said

By on

But it sounds like there was a consensual (if very questionable) relationship or interactions for a while, and at some point it either was no longer consensual, or someone had a breakdown and the questionable stuff came up.

Professors shouldn't be having romantic or sexual relationships or interactions with students.

But such relationships are not that unusual, with male and female professors alike, and I've known at least 3 students at top universities who've been involved in student-professor sexual relationships, all of whom felt it was positive, and none of those became public. I've also worked with at least 2 others where that seemed to be going on, but I didn't know them well enough for it to be mentioned.

I almost had that forced on me, once working at the university but no longer a student. A female PI made a physical advance in a professional context, and kept doing it even though I was clearly scared by it and kept backing away, until I was literally pressed into a corner. Fortunately, it didn't go any further, and I didn't mention it to anyone because there wasn't much to say, I assumed that this university would pick a tenured professor over me and fight dirty, and I didn't want a professor's reputation to be damaged by an inappropriate but human moment.

Yes, questionable professor behavior happens often in the top universities, and it's not just male professors. It's professors of both genders, usually with sizable egos, who don't always follow the rules. Why would anyone think this doesn't go on, where big egos and disdain for rules are the norm.

The problems are that there are questions of power differential, and whether it compromises the intended dynamics between professor and all students. Sorry, professors, your dating pool at the office is very small.

The other problem is, if a student later complains about a relationship, it's probably career-ending for the professor. Unless the professor is highly valued by the university, and the university can manage to keep the scandal quiet.

A professor

By on

who is a good teacher and sexually harassing students online is not doing his/her job. Calling him an "Old goat" is a curious way of minimizing the damage he has done.

Damage done

By on

you mean like the devastation wrought by pornhub. the spermicide of 4chan or the crimes against humanity perpetrated by internet dik pictures of wieners?

You must be new to the internet if an old guy 3,000 miles away jerking off damages you.

Or is consent not possible between a dude in a video and the rest of humanity?

You should be able to trust your teacher

By on

Having a teacher sexualize a relationship is different from random internet nastiness. He was still in a position of authority and was dealing with someone who was clearly emotionally vulnerable. That he seemed to feel that he was doing her a favor makes things worse.

I understand how it's hard to hear this kind of stuff about an excellent teacher. Some of the men I have really looked up to turned out to be making some women's lives a misery. For me, their excellence in their occupation will always be diminished by their callousness in their personal life.

The Law Is ... Just That

By on

While titillating, this is a minor issue.
Yes, the prof.'s behavior was absurd.
But most women would have hung up on him.
And maybe taken a shower. Then moved on.

It was settled appropriately.

A more pressing issue is crime, sexual or otherwise, on a cruise ship.
They generally occur outside the jurisdiction of any nation.

The Law Is ... Just That

By on

While titillating, this is a minor issue.
Yes, the prof.'s behavior was absurd.
But most women would have hung up on him.
And maybe taken a shower. Then moved on.

It was settled appropriately.

A more pressing issue is crime, sexual or otherwise, on a cruise ship.
They generally occur outside the jurisdiction of any nation.

Why, thank you

Thanks for mansplaining the appropriate way for women to react to a "minor issue". What level of exposure is necessary for someone to appropriately feel violated?

victim blaming

really, wtf

yes this and the girl who got raped shouldn't have dressed like that or the wife who got beat should've left her husband or the employee who was harassed should've quit... and most of all the perpetrator shouldn't have done what they did in the first place - for that 'causal act' there should be consequences