June 23, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The law applies to schools in pre-K through 12th grade as well as post-secondary schools.
Title IX is widely celebrated for its enormous impact in creating opportunities for female students to participate and compete in sports. It has also proved to be a potent tool in addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault in schools. Over the years, the U.S. Department of Education and the Supreme Court have come to recognize that students who are subject to sexual harassment or assault in school are denied equal access to education. Accordingly, Title IX places an affirmative responsibility on schools to prevent sexual harassment and assault, and to investigate and respond when these offenses occur.
MoFo’s lawyers have played an active role in pro bono cases to protect individuals’ rights under Title IX in order to ensure gender equality and equal access to education.
In celebration of Title IX’s 50th anniversary, here are a few of those cases.
Challenging Title IX Rules
MoFo, in concert with the National Women’s Law Center, brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education to challenge new Title IX regulations that went into effect in 2020. The new rules significantly narrowed the definition of sexual harassment under Title IX, relaxed schools’ obligations to respond to claims of sexual harassment, and imposed significant burdens on victims of harassment or assault who file complaints under Title IX. In bringing this suit, we represented advocacy organizations as well as individual victims of sexual harassment and assault. The MoFo team was led by Washington, D.C. litigation partner Natalie Fleming Nolen. The case resulted in a partial victory—the only success among several court challenges to these rules—with a court’s determination that procedures created by the rules rendered the hearing on a victim’s complaint “a remarkably hollow gesture.” The Biden administration marked Title IX’s 50th anniversary on June 23rd by releasing its proposal to replace the 2020 rules, beginning the process for new and fairer rules to be adopted.
Fighting to End Stereotypes Against Women Athletes
In December 2020, MoFo attorneys led by San Francisco partner Christine Wong filed an amicus brief on behalf of a University of Connecticut (“UConn”) female soccer player whose scholarship was revoked after the university deemed her game-winning celebration to be inappropriate conduct. The brief argued that female athletes are not only offered fewer opportunities than male athletes, but also that perpetuating stereotypes of how women should act means that women athletes are often held to a stricter standard of conduct than their male counterparts. As a result, the UConn female soccer player was disciplined more severely than male athletes who had previously committed far more serious offenses.
Letting Girls Wear Pants to School
Just last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Title IX applies to school dress codes and also held that a public charter school’s policy that bars girls from wearing shorts or pants is unconstitutional sex discrimination. The school’s founder had justified the policy as part of the school’s effort to inculcate “traditional values,” including that girls are fragile vessels who need to be protected by boys. MoFo appellate attorneys Brian Matsui and Aaron Rauh filed an amicus brief in the case representing the Society for Research in Child Development and several other professional groups that focused on the harm of imposing gender stereotypes on children. The court resoundingly endorsed that concern by ruling that “the skirts requirement blatantly perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes” with “potentially devastating consequences for young girls.”
Listen to the MoFo Perspectives podcast, “Keeping Title IX Protections in Play,” a special pro bono episode moderated by MoFo’s Caitlin Crujido, featuring partners Natalie Fleming Nolen and Christine Wong, and Equal Rights Advocates senior counsel, Brenda Adams.
Learn more about MoFo’s pro bono program.