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KC Johnson to Journalists: Stop Presuming Guilt

By January 22, 2013

For nearly two years now, FIRE has been one of the leading critics of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague letter” (DCL).

As Torch readers know, the DCL issued sweeping new mandates to colleges and universities accepting federal funding (virtually all of them, public or private) to reduce the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct on campus. Those that do not heed OCR’s directive risk a federal investigation and the loss of federal funds.

Supporters of the mandate often argue that our colleges and universities are plagued with sexual assaults on campus, which occur without repercussion. This argument is often bolstered by news articles on allegations of sexual misconduct.

This past Saturday, Brooklyn College Professor KC Johnson, a critic of OCR’s misguided mandate, blogged about the carelessness with which many media outlets write stories sexual assault on campus. He wrote:

In the N&O [the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer], reporter Gloria Lloyd likewise declines to use the phrases “alleged victims” or “accusers,” and instead reports as fact that 66 rapes occurred.

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The title of a Huffington Post article by Tyler Kingkade is “University Of North Carolina Routinely Violates Sexual Assault Survivor Rights, Students Claim.” The article seems to speak as if there’s no question that each rape occurred, noting that the complaint was filed by two “survivors” and “64 other victims.” Oddly, at other points Kingkade describes accused students as “alleged rapists” who committed “alleged abuse.” How a “victim” is produced by a rape that remains only “alleged” Kingkade does not reveal.

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The most striking aspect of both the DTH [the University of North Carolina's Daily Tar Heel student newspaper] and the N&O articles came in their decision not to describe, in any way, the procedures that supposedly treated these 66 rape victims unfairly. How could any DTH or N&O reader know, for instance, that a process that’s supposedly indifferent to the suffering to rape victims in actuality denies accused students the right to counsel, or allows conviction on a 50.1% threshold? The HuffPost article does, briefly, mention UNC procedures, but only to bizarrely imply that the 2012 changes perpetuate a culture of silence.

Including the necessary procedural context, of course, would have dramatically altered the uncritical acceptance about the facts of the complaint that the reporters brought to their articles.

The core of the problem is this: Without the benefit of omniscience, it’s impossible to know if an accused person actually committed the crime, especially when there isn’t a reliable and fair hearing adjudicating most accusations. It’s for this reason that responsible media outlets regularly use the word “alleged” when dealing with those accused of crimes. You can’t just assume an accused person is guilty, just as you can’t assume an accuser is lying.

Ultimately, Professor Johnson calls upon journalists to approach claims of sexual assault (especially those which presume guilt without the benefit of trials or hearings) with appropriate skepticism. We at FIRE agree, but cannot emphasize enough that whether sexual assaults on campus are happening with alarming frequency, are rare occurrences, or are something in between, every allegation must be treated seriously and every accused student must be presumed innocent until proven guilty under procedures that provide meaningful due process. These twin obligations need not—indeed, should not—be in tension.