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FIRE Op-Ed Part of ‘New York Times’ Debate on Campus Sexual Assault

By August 13, 2014

Torch readers are well aware that FIRE has played a lead role in the national debate about how colleges and universities should properly respond to sexual assaults on campus. Yesterday, an op-ed by FIRE’s Samantha Harris was included in a series in The New York Times on this important issue, designed to present a variety of approaches to the problem.

In Samantha’s piece, she argues that, while colleges have a vital role to play in ensuring that complainants receive the support they need to continue their educations, law enforcement professionals and courts of law must take the lead in adjudicating these cases and providing justice to victims. As Samantha explains:

[S]ince all a university can do is expel a student it finds responsible for sexual assault, relying on university disciplinary systems to adjudicate such claims means that universities are simply releasing people they deem dangerous back into the larger society, where they are free to continue their behavior.

For the sake of everyone involved, universities should focus on providing support — including Title IX remedies — to the alleged victims of sexual assault, and should coordinate with law enforcement to maximize the chances that rapists will end up in jail, where they belong.

FIRE is not alone in our assessment that colleges are ill-equipped to adjudicate these cases. Other organizations, including theRape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of our nation’s leading victim’s rights advocacy groups, have expressed this same concern. In RAINN’s comment to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, the group powerfully argued:

It would never occur to anyone to leave the adjudication of a murder in the hands of a school’s internal judicial process. Why, then, is it not only common, but expected, for them to do so when it comes to sexual assault? We need to get to a point where it seems just as inappropriate to treat rape so lightly.

While we respect the seriousness with which many schools treat such internal processes, and the good intentions and good faith of many who devote their time to participating in such processes, the simple fact is that these internal boards were designed to adjudicate charges like plagiarism, not violent felonies. The crime of rape just does not fit the capabilities of such boards. They often offer the worst of both worlds: they lack protections for the accused while often tormenting victims.

Unfortunately, too many lawmakers are attempting to tinker with campus adjudication processes, rather than treating sexual assaults as the crimes they are. The unintended but dangerous consequence of this approach is that it will divert meritorious claims away from formal law enforcement and criminal court channels. As Samantha so perfectly points out, this likelihood will inevitably and unacceptably result in allowing “people [universities] deem dangerous back into the larger society, where they are free to continue their behavior.”

For more on our take, check out Samantha’s full op-ed and compare it to the arguments presented by the other advocates in the series.

Cases: National: White House Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault Jeopardizes Student Due Process