United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
A. Gibney, Jr. United states District Judge.
case arises from the cyberbullying of a student-run feminist
organization at the University of Mary Washington
("UMW"). The cyberbullying occurred primarily
through a social media smartphone application called Yik Yak.
Yik Yak allowed users to anonymously share messages-called
"yaks"-with other users within a certain radius
(e.g., with users at or around UMW). Other users could then
anonymously comment on yaks or could vote up or down on the
yaks. During the 2014-2015 school year, users on Yik Yak
harassed the plaintiffs by posting insulting, derogatory, and
threatening yaks. The plaintiffs complained to UMW about the
harassment, and eventually filed a complaint against UMW
under Title IX.
plaintiffs have now sued UMW, along with its current and
former presidents, for violations of Title IX and the Equal
Protection Clause. The defendants have moved to dismiss.
Because UMW has limited, if any, control over Yik Yak, the
plaintiffs' Title IX discrimination claim fails. Their
Title IX retaliation claim fails because UMW took no
retaliatory action against the plaintiffs. Finally, because
no constitutional violation occurred, let alone a clearly
establish or continuing violation, the plaintiffs have not
stated claims under the Equal Protection Clause. Accordingly,
the Court will grant the defendants' motion to
the 2014-2015 school year, the five individual plaintiffs
were students at UMW, a public university that receives
federal funds. The individual plaintiffs served on the
executive board of Feminists United on Campus
("Feminists United"), a student-run organization
"dedicated to educating the student body about gender
issues and fighting for gender equality." (Am. Compl.
¶ 11.) Feminists United is an affiliate of the Feminist
Majority Foundation (the "FMF"), an organization
"dedicated to women's equality, reproductive health,
and nonviolence." (Am. Compl. ¶ 10.)
2014 and early 2015, members of Feminists United spoke out
about different campus happenings that implicated issues
important to their organization, such as sexual assault and
violence against women. After Feminists United spoke out, users
on Yik Yak began posting insulting and derogatory yaks about
Feminists United and its individual members. These posts,
together with a handful of in-person encounters, made members
of Feminists United feel unsafe on campus. Feminists United
reported the posts and encounters to the UMW administration,
including then-president Richard Hurley, multiple times. The
members also reported feeling unsafe multiple times.
of cyberbullying against Feminists United and its members
continued throughout the spring of 2015. In some instances,
the yaks included threats of physical and sexual violence,
some mentioned members of Feminists United by name. Some yaks
included a member's location on campus so that people
could confront her in person. These posts frightened members
of Feminists United. One member reported her discomfort to
campus police, who sent a police officer to attend both a
Feminists United meeting and another meeting a yak had
identified as one that the member planned to attend.
organized some "sharing circles" to discuss Yik Yak
at UMW. In addition to the yaks directed at Feminists United
and its members, other students and student groups at UMW
were experiencing cyberbullying through Yik Yak, including
African American, Islamic, and Latino students.
with UMW's responses both to the posts and to other
events on campus, Feminists United asked to meet with the
administration to express their concerns and to explain their
increasing fear for their personal safety. Feminists United
requested that UMW, among other things, disable Yik Yak on
campus and ban Yik Yak from UMW's wireless network. UMW
told Feminists United that they could not consider disabling
Yik Yak because of First Amendment concerns.
2015, Feminists United and its members, joined by the FMF,
filed an administrative complaint with the Department of
Education's Office of Civil Rights ("OCR"),
alleging that UMW violated Title IX "by failing to
adequately address the sexually hostile environment created
by persistent online harassment and threats." (Am.
Compl. ¶ 68.) The plaintiffs held a press conference at
UMW the next day. After the press conference, UMW issued a
public statement that allegedly denied the allegations in the
OCR complaint and suggested that the plaintiffs made false
accusations about UMW and its actions. In the days that
followed, anonymous users posted more disparaging and
harassing statements against Feminists United on Yik Yak.
8, 2015, President Hurley sent a letter to the FMF (the
"June 8 Letter"), responding to some of the
allegations in the OCR complaint. Hurley published this
letter with various news outlets. In the letter, Hurley
detailed UMW's actions in response to Feminists
United's concerns and explained the First Amendment
concerns involved with banning Yik Yak. He commented that
some of the yaks "were certainly offensive and alarming
in isolation, but must be placed in context."
(See Am. Compl. ¶ 73.) Anonymous Yik Yak users
continued to post hostile and harassing comments about
Feminists United and its members after the publication the
June 8 Letter and throughout the summer of 2015.
plaintiffs allege four counts in their complaint: (1)
sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, brought against
UMW; (2) retaliation in violation of Title IX, brought
against UMW; (3) violation of the Equal Protection Clause,
brought against President Hurley in his individual capacity
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (4) violation of the
Equal Protection Clause, brought against Troy Paino, current
president of UMW, in his official capacity pursuant to §
1983. The defendants have moved to dismiss all counts.
IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in certain educational
institutions that receive federal funds. 20 U.S.C. §
1681(a). For violations, the Supreme Court has
recognized an implied private right of action against the