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In his ruling, Saylor acknowledged Title IX might be outdated because its 20th-century authors never considered the possibility of cross-border education via computer networks:
Title IX may well be outdated.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 But this Court is not empowered to “fix” outdated statutes, no matter how worthy the goal may be.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."