House VAWA Includes Millions for Controversial ‘Campus Safety’ Center

By on May 17, 2012

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2012—Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 (VAWA), which includes millions of dollars in federal funding to create a "National Center for Campus Public Safety." The proposed Center raises serious concerns for students, faculty, colleges and universities, taxpayers, and campus rights advocates. As the Senate and House versions of VAWA appear poised to be reconciled in conference committee, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is urging Congress to reexamine support for the Center.  

"While some aspects of both the House and Senate bills preserve due process protections for students," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, "the new Center risks threatening fundamental civil liberties both on and off campus."

The Center, which would be funded by $2.75 million in taxpayer funds annually from 2013 to 2016, would promulgate "policies, procedures, and best practices relevant to campus public safety," including "effective behavioral threat assessment and management models," among other aims. However well-intentioned those aims might be, FIRE’s years of experience defending college student and faculty rights demonstrate that "threat assessment" programs often abuse their power by monitoring, censoring, and punishing the peaceful speech of students and faculty members.  

In FIRE’s experience, campus threat assessment models often seek to create a "surveillance university" by advocating increased monitoring, reporting, and database recording of student and faculty behavior both on and off campus. One prominent threat assessment organization’s model even identifies "harmful debate" and "wearing concealing clothing, such as hoodies," as risk factors worth monitoring. By endorsing similar models, the Center would likely extend university jurisdiction in unprecedented ways, requiring still more campus bureaucracy and raising college costs. 

In the fall of 2011, for example, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout was censored twice, reported to the "threat assessment team," and threatened with criminal charges because of satirical postings on his office door, including a quote from the science-fiction television series Firefly.  

Similarly, former Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes was expelled without a hearing after the university’s president concluded that a cut-and-paste collage Barnes had posted on Facebook, protesting proposed campus parking garages, presented a "clear and present danger" to the campus. Barnes’ ordeal began in 2007, and this past February, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s finding that the then-president of the university could be held personally liable for violating Barnes’ constitutional right to due process. 

Additionally, colleges and universities that decline to adopt the practices advocated by the Center might find themselves exposed to increased liability in suits for damages. Conversely, risk management lawyers operating expensive training programs for universities seeking to avoid liability would prosper—at taxpayer cost. Because of the threat that the Center could pose to civil liberties on campus, it is troubling that its creation has been inserted into VAWA without the input of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and without the input of the higher education community.

FIRE takes no position on the vast majority of VAWA. In April, the United States Senate made bipartisan progress on college student rights by passing its version of VAWA, which altered language in the final bill that might have required colleges and universities to employ our nation’s weakest standard of proof in adjudicating allegations of campus sexual misconduct. While FIRE enthusiastically welcomes that change, FIRE continues to be concerned about the Senate bill’s requirement that colleges maintain "procedures for the accused and the victim to appeal the results of the institutional disciplinary proceeding." (Emphasis added.) The requirement contradicts the principle behind the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on "double jeopardy," whereby someone accused of a crime cannot be tried again for the same charge once the original hearing has properly ended in either acquittal or conviction. The House version of VAWA preserves due process protections for students by omitting such a provision.  

"When it comes to campus rights, there are good and bad elements to both versions of the VAWA Reauthorization Act," said FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn. "Hopefully, in conference, legislators from both the House and Senate will act to protect student rights by cutting the provision that would unfairly subject students cleared of sexual misconduct to ‘double jeopardy’ and eliminating the misguided National Center for Campus Public Safety."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org

Cases: National: Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights April 4, 2011, Guidance Letter Reduces Due Process Protections