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FIRE Provides Comment to White House Task Force

By March 3, 2014

On Friday, February 28, 2014, FIRE submitted a written comment to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Task Force, established by President Obama on January 22, will be advising the President on how his administration can best address sexual assaults on campus and will draft a proposed action plan within 90 days of its formation. FIRE offered an initial statement upon the White House’s creation of the Task Force back in January.

On February 6, the White House Task Force announced a series of listening sessions where it would listen to input from various categories of stakeholders regarding government responses to sexual assaults on college campuses. FIRE participated in the February 19 listening session set aside for civil liberties organizations by providing verbal testimony. On Friday, we supplemented our verbal testimony with a written comment.

In our written comment we explained:

Today, access to higher education is critical for Americans. Indeed, the White House website calls it “a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” The stakes are therefore extremely high for both the student complainant and the accused student in campus disciplinary proceedings, and it is essential that neither student’s ability to receive an education is curtailed unjustly. When a university dismisses an accusation of a sexual assault without adequate investigation, it has both broken the law and failed to fulfill its moral duty. Recent headlines indicate that far too many schools have taken this path. Similarly, when a college expels an accused student after a hearing that includes few, if any, meaningful procedural safeguards, it too has failed to fulfill its legal and moral obligations. Far too many schools have taken this path as well.

When a student is suspended or expelled from college without due process protections, the consequences can be profound. In many of those instances, expulsions—particularly for one of society’s most heinous crimes—have the effect of ending educations and permanently altering career prospects.

When an expulsion follows a hearing that includes meaningful due process, there is no problem; justice has been served. But an objective look at the disciplinary procedures maintained by colleges nationwide demonstrates that most institutions fall woefully short of that standard. Sexual assault hearings are complex adjudications of allegations of behavior that constitutes a felony, and the campus judiciary is simply ill-equipped to handle these matters. Without access to the resources, technology, and experience that law enforcement and criminal courts possess, institutions are being asked to determine who is guilty and who is not in these very challenging cases. If there is one thing that people on all sides of this issue agree on, it is this: Few if any schools are capably responding to the problem of sexual assault on campus. Even the best-intentioned campus administrators, of which there are certainly many, simply lack the necessary expertise. [Citations removed.]

Please take a moment to read FIRE’s full written commentary.

We at FIRE are thankful to the White House Task Force for providing us the opportunity to share our perspective with them on this very serious issue, and we have offered to assist them in their work as best as we can. We look forward to seeing the Task Force’s action plan once it is drafted. Keep checking The Torch for updates.