Last week, the flagship news magazine program on Al Jazeera America, America Tonight, broadcast a series of reports about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, ending with a town hall discussion on this critically important subject. In a fair, thorough portrayal of the issues involved, America Tonight put together in-depth segments on the experiences of sexual assault victims, the fraternity culture on campus, and how sexual predators use alcohol as a tool to incapacitate their victims. These reports should be required viewing for anyone who is on a college campus or who has a child there.
America Tonight also did an in-depth report about Caleb Warner, the student who was falsely accused of rape in 2010 and suspended from the University of North Dakota for three years. He turned to FIRE for help when UND refused to clear his record even after a warrant was issued for his accuser’s arrest for filing a false police report. For the first time, Caleb went on camera to tell his story. Any attempt to paraphrase what he says would do him an injustice. Watch the video to see the price this young man has paid for being falsely accused of rape.
The America Tonight series culminated in a town hall meeting in which 18 survivors, activists, and experts spoke about the issue. (I appeared on a panel on campus justice along with Sherry Warner Seefeld, Caleb’s mother and staunch defender, and Peter R. Ginsberg, who is representing student Dez Wells in a suit against Xavier University, which expelled Wells for sexual assault even though a grand jury refused to indict and the prosecutor called on the university to revisit the case.) Interesting fact: The America Tonight producers approached 11 different universities to send representatives to participate in the program; all of them declined.
As valuable as the town hall was, the really meaningful dialogue took place in the green room before the program, when Sherry Warner Seefeld exchanged her story with a woman who had been held prisoner in her off-campus apartment while two intruders debated whether to rape her or not. In that moment, it became clear that they shared a common bond, as the broken campus system of dealing with sexual assault had failed them both.
FIRE has often said that no one benefits from a system that is unreliable. It doesn’t matter if it is unreliable because universities cover up sexual assaults and let perpetrators off with a slap on the wrist or because they deny students hearings with procedural safeguards and then expel them under a “preponderance of the evidence” standard—the lowest form of proof in our judicial system. Universities owe it to their students to ensure that neither of these situations take place on our nation’s campuses.
FIRE thanks America Tonight for its reporting. We look forward to continuing the dialogue to find a way that American colleges and universities can respond to sexual assault allegations so that everyone involved receives justice.