Addressing common misconceptions about the new Title IX regulations

May 21, 2020

The Department of Education finalized its new Title IX regulations less than two weeks ago, and already, a lot of misinformation about them has been published in various forms of media. We can’t address it all here, but we wanted to at least clarify some points that many commenting on the regulations are getting wrong.

Often, misinformation about the law proliferates because people don’t have the time or energy to check original sources. Commentary doesn’t always include citations, and sometimes people think they won’t be able to read or understand legalese anyway. On the second point, they’re usually wrong. So when in doubt, readers: Be skeptical of any source that doesn’t quote and link to the regulations themselves, and go back and read them yourselves.

Without further ado, here are some commonly shared incorrect or misleading statements about the regulations:

  1. The regulations mandate that sexual harassment cases be treated differently from racial harassment cases.

The regulations require that federally funded educational institutions — all but a few colleges and universities across the country — respond a certain way to sexual misconduct, and these requirements do not all apply in non-sexual misconduct cases. ED isn’t instructing schools to treat non-sexual misconduct cases differently, per se; it just can’t create obligations for how institutions handle non-sexual misconduct allegations in Title IX regulations, because Title IX governs sex discrimination only. Under the new regulations, institutions will no longer be required or encouraged to provide respondents in sexual misconduct cases fewer free speech and due process rights than they have been providing respondents in non-sexual misconduct cases.

With respect to the definition of harassment, for example, critics argue that sexual harassment will have to reach a higher threshold before schools can and must punish someone engaging in sexual harassment compared with racial harassment.

[T]here are many sources of misinformation out there, including individuals and organizations that should know better.

It’s easy to see where this misinformation comes from: In the spring of 2013, the Department of Education promoted an unconstitutionally broad definition of sexual harassment — “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct” — although it publicly backed away from this definition just months later. As FIRE explained at the time, the Supreme Court of the United States established the legal definition of student-on-student (or peer) sexual  harassment in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education: conduct “that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

Moreover, in its 2001 Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance, issued by President Bill Clinton’s Department of Education the day before President George W. Bush was inaugurated, ED’s Office for Civil Rights addressed requests “to provide distinct definitions of sexual harassment to be used in administrative enforcement as distinguished from criteria used to maintain private actions for monetary damages.” It declined to do so, explaining that “schools benefit from consistency and simplicity in understanding what is sexual harassment for which the school must take responsive action. A multiplicity of definitions would not serve this purpose.”

The new regulations’ definition of hostile environment harassment tracks the Davis standard: “Unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” So if critics have a problem, their problem is with the Supreme Court, or perhaps with the Clinton administration, not with the current Secretary of Education.

In any case, courts have been applying the Davis standard to racial harassment cases for almost Davis’ entire existence. When ED instructed institutions to punish “any unwelcome [speech] of a sexual nature,” it didn’t make the same instruction with respect to racial harassment. As a result, institutions were left with the impression that they should be punishing a far broader spectrum of sex-related speech than race-related speech. The new regulations simply clarify that both types of harassment should be assessed according to the Davis standard.

FIRE would be very pleased to see the regulations’ procedural safeguards guaranteed in all serious, non-academic misconduct cases.

Similarly, with respect to the standard of evidence, schools are already treating sexual and racial misconduct cases differently, and the regulations explicitly allow institutions to treat them the same way. In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, ED mandated for the first time that all institutions governed by Title IX use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in adjudicating sexual misconduct cases — but again, it made no such mandate with respect to race-related cases.

As a result, most colleges maintain a bifurcated system where sexual misconduct cases are dealt with differently from all other cases, including racial harassment cases. Some schools, inclined to require “clear and convincing evidence” for a responsible finding, have been using a higher standard of evidence for non-sex-related cases than for sex-related cases since 2011. ED’s rescission of this 2011 mandate and finalization of the new regulations gives institutions a path (and ED has encouraged institutions) to use the same standard for both types of cases.

Finally, with respect to the adjudication procedure aside from the standard of evidence, the same is true. Many institutions already provide live hearings for non-sexual misconduct cases, but not for sexual misconduct cases. This may be in part due to a 2014 report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, which encouraged schools to use a single-investigator model for sexual misconduct cases. Under the new regulations, these schools will give students facing non-sexual misconduct cases and students facing sexual misconduct cases more similar opportunities to defend themselves and challenge the evidence against them in a meaningful hearing.

FIRE would be very pleased to see the regulations’ procedural safeguards guaranteed in all serious, non-academic misconduct cases. (In fact, FIRE has worked with legislatures to enact bipartisan legislation that provides consistent, robust safeguards in campus proceedings whenever there is a potential penalty of 10 or more days of suspension or expulsion on the line.) But for now, the regulations at least help ensure that respondents in sexual misconduct cases possess many safeguards they are often granted already in non-sexual misconduct cases.

Students walk near Healy Hall at Georgetown University.Students walk near Healy Hall at Georgetown University. (Sharkshock / Shutterstock.com)
  1. The regulations raise the standard of evidence for campus disciplinary cases.

Somewhat relatedly, critics have argued that the regulations effectively require institutions to use a higher standard of evidence for sexual misconduct cases than they did previously. This is easily demonstrated to be false. The regulations plainly state that an institution may choose “whether the standard of evidence to be used to determine responsibility is the preponderance of the evidence standard or the clear and convincing evidence standard,” so long as it uses the same standard for “all formal complaints of sexual harassment,” including against employees. If an institution wants to use the “preponderance” standard, it still can do so. Furthermore, institutions were in the same position before the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, and have remained in the same position even after 2011 with respect to non-sexual misconduct cases. There is no drastic new requirement here.

The same could not be said for the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, which did impose new requirements on schools — without ED soliciting notice and comment from stakeholders, as required under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ACLU and others argue that the preponderance standard should be required anyway because it is the standard used in Title IX cases in civil court. But those cases are against institutions that are guaranteed many more procedural safeguards in court than students are afforded in campus disciplinary systems, including some of the safeguards to which some commenters have objected now that they are required by the new regulations. Institutions also have lawyers and money and other resources at their disposal to assist in their defense. These institutions will not be punished because three out of five fact-finding panelists believe it is more likely than not that they committed wrongdoing, as students can be.

Still, if institutions want to use the low, preponderance standard, they may.

  1. The regulations gut Title IX protections.

Critics of the regulations claim that they “gut[] Title IX protections for students.” To the contrary, as my colleague Joe Cohn explained in a post earlier this month, the regulations require that schools provide new and important safeguards, options, and tools to both complainants and respondents, and they bring the focus of the regulations back to the original purpose of Title IX — ensuring equal access to education.

Right now, too many institutions aim for whatever result is worst for the respondent, not whatever result is best for the complainant. They are concerned with punishing students who they deem guilty, but they are not necessarily asking what complainants feel would be most helpful for them to continue their education. That serves no one.

Safeguards like the opportunity to question witnesses aren’t just useful for respondents; they can be used by complainants and their representatives to demonstrate to fact-finders the truth of their complaints, too. With more information shared in advance of the hearing, complainants will be better able to prepare for it. And with a guarantee of impartial fact-finders and public training materials, complainants can have more confidence that their cases will be handled fairly — or more recourse if they aren’t.

As Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, has written, “[T]here isn’t a conflict between ensuring a fair process for both survivors and for alleged perpetrators.” We agree. With both parties guaranteed many safeguards that they do not receive on most campuses now, fact-finders will be better equipped to reach accurate, reliable findings of fact, whether they’re responsible findings or not responsible findings. Procedural safeguards help ensure more innocent students are not punished and more guilty students are punished.

Procedural safeguards help ensure more innocent students are not punished and more guilty students are punished.

Moreover, some provisions of the regulations and supplementary information will help protect against common hurdles that self-identified survivors have faced. For one example, after recognizing commenters’ concerns about complainants bearing the burden of gathering relevant evidence themselves, ED emphasized that institutions, not students, should bear that responsibility. It explained: “Title IX obligates recipients to operate education programs and activities free from sex discrimination, and does not place burdens on students or employees who are seeking to maintain the equal educational access that recipients are obligated to provide.”

One victims’ rights advocate said in a recent interview that she received only two days’ notice that the person she alleged raped her would be questioning her. She was afraid of hearing her attacker’s voice again, and ended up dropping her case. We can’t say whether she would have dropped her case if the hearing process complied with the new regulations, but there are, at least, provisions in the regulations to address several of these factors. She would never have had only two days’ notice of cross-examination.

Between clear policies requiring an opportunity for questioning and the several weeks of aggregate time guaranteed to students as they collect and review evidence, she would not have been caught off-guard in this way. And she wouldn’t have to face her alleged rapist directly — she wouldn’t have to hear his voice if she didn’t want to. With questioning conducted by both parties’ representatives, and with the ability to participate from another room, she would have to endure less direct exposure to her alleged rapist than she did without the regulations.

This is not a comprehensive review of provisions that will help protect complainants, but these examples should at least cast doubt on claims that the regulations benefit only respondents.

Yet, many responses to the regulations have been extreme. Catherine E. Lhamon, chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and former ED’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, tweeted: “[Betsy DeVos] presides over taking us back to the bad old days, that predate my birth, when it was permissible to rape and sexually harass students with impunity.”

FIRE understands that too often, complaints of sexual harassment and assault are not taken seriously, and that FIRE’s mission of defending accused students’ due process rights does not align with everyone’s first priorities. However, it is just not true that affording students more robust due process rights means that anyone can rape and harass “with impunity.”

The physical act of assault — sexual or not — is still prohibited and punishable under university rules and state laws. The determination of whether speech may be punished as discriminatory harassment will follow the same analysis as it has in courts for decades. ED retains the ability to deny funding to institutions governed by Title IX. Schools will be able to mete out more serious punishments with more confidence that respondents found responsible have earned it, and that the case won’t be overturned in court. And, if anything, schools will be less able to hide wrongdoing (including bias in favor of respondents) behind closed doors, from training to investigations to decisions to appeals.

In a similar vein, critics of the regulations assert that the regulations instruct institutions to ignore harassment until a student drops out of school, rather than addressing problems early enough that a complainant can continue her education at that institution. But the supplementary information accompanying the regulations explicitly states that the applicable standard requires only “that a person’s ‘equal’ access to education has been denied, not that a person’s total or entire educational access has been denied”; it “does not require that a complainant has already suffered loss of education before being able to report sexual harassment.”

Again: Read the document yourself.

Meier Commons at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Meier Commons at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com)
  1. “But my school already provides a fair disciplinary procedure!”

We’ve spoken with many administrators who think that they already provide procedural safeguards like notice of charges and an opportunity to be heard. But these administrators’ institutions often do not actually guarantee these safeguards; instead, they maintain policies that allow an administrator to grant those safeguards or to omit them, at their discretion. This is problematic on several levels. First, it means that one student (indeed, a complainant or respondent) may be treated better or worse based on an administrator’s personal feelings about them or their case. Such a result cannot stand. Second, it means that many students will, in practice, be denied these procedural safeguards, effectively depriving them of a meaningful opportunity to present their cases.

It’s not enough to have policies that an administrator could theoretically interpret in a way that affords a student procedural safeguards. Policies must be clear and specific enough that they will be applied the same way in all cases, whether applied by the person who wrote them, or a hypothetical administrative robot, or someone who thinks the policies should say the opposite of what they say. And administrators should want this clarity, too. After all, if you went through the trouble of crafting a policy you think is fair, wouldn’t you want it to be applied as you intended if you left the school or something happened to you?

The regulations require this clarity and specificity. And if an administrator thinks their institution already provides these safeguards, surely no harm can come from making that indisputable.

  1. Institutions can’t handle this right now.

Critics of the regulations have argued that now was the wrong time to finalize these regulations. Subsequent headlines described the regulations as “quietly” enacted, as if there hasn’t been constant discussion of their imminence for nearly 18 months among those with an interest. Here’s the timeline:

The regulations were proposed in November 2018. Over 120,000 comments were submitted, and ED had to read and prepare a response to them all. (Hence, also, the length of the supplementary information.) When that was finished, organizations opposing the regulations reportedly (according to a college administrator who also opposes the regulations) implemented a strategy to delay their release for months more. Then COVID-19 hit. Institutions had over a year before then to plan for policy revisions. And without the delay strategy, the regulations may have, indeed, been finalized before this pandemic reached the United States, or at least before it changed the landscape for schools nationwide.

[M]any institutions already have language they can use to comply with the regulations … Institutions do not have to start from scratch.

Delay aside, these opponents of the regulations are essentially arguing that colleges must be required to adjudicate these cases during the pandemic, but that the executive branch is powerless to take steps to ensure they are adjudicated fairly. We doubt the same people would hold this stance if ED had finalized regulations identical to the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. After all, the 2011 letter was enacted without notice and comment and effectively required immediate changes, and we didn’t see objections to the letter on that basis from those who supported the new requirements.

Finally, two practical notes: First, if institutions aren’t looking forward to revising their policies mid-pandemic, they should be even less excited about facing potential litigation for denying respondents due process, especially with an ever-increasing number of rulings in favor of those respondents.

Second, many institutions already have language they can use to comply with the regulations, because they already provide live hearings in non-sexual misconduct cases. These institutions can simply start with this framework, take out language leaving safeguards at the discretion of various administrators, and add in the specific notice and other requirements from the new regulations. Institutions do not have to start from scratch.

A closing note

There are other arguments against the regulations that we will be addressing in the coming weeks and months. We hope that our coverage will serve not only as a source of substantive information about the regulations and their context, but also as a reminder that there are many sources of misinformation out there, including individuals and organizations that should know better.

This is not a black-and-white issue, student rights are not a zero sum game, and there is no easy solution. Not everything in the regulations is exactly what FIRE would have written, or even something FIRE would try to write, given our narrow mission. But the regulations contain many procedural safeguards that ultimately will benefit students on either side of the disciplinary process.


Cases:  U.S. Department of Education enacts new Title IX regulations requiring procedural safeguards in campus disciplinary hearings, adopts Supreme Court sexual harassment definition