Shut up:” Columbia’s New Approach to Debate

February 28, 2001

GUILTY until proven innocent. That seems to be Columbia University’s take on anyone accused of sexual misconduct. And it’s not up for discussion.

Under rules the school adopted last year, students accused of sexual indiscretions have no right to counsel, no right to confront their accusers and no right to cross-examine witnesses. In other words, no rights at all.

And when the Columbia Civil Liberties Union tried to hold a round-table discussion on the new policy last Friday, neither university administrators nor members of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER, the on-campus advocates who pushed for the rules) were even willing to show up.

Among those who did attend: Columbia Law professor Vivian Berger and Massachusetts ACLU board member Harvey Silvergate.

"We don’t think this sort of discussion would be constructive," says SAFER Co-Coordinator Sarah Richardson: "We are interested in concrete reform, not in dialogue with outsiders of questionable integrity."

Students at Columbia University claiming the ACLU has questionable integrity?

There’s a first.

A major reason I applied to Columbia was my high-school English teacher’s glamorous stories of 1960s campus sit-ins and protests. He told me: "Columbia is the one university in the Ivy League that allows for a free exchange of ideas among students and faculty."

I didn’t find things quite that open in my four years there. Still, this adamant stance against hearing anybody else’s opinion on this white-hot issue (the forum has been the lead story in back-to-back issues of the Columbia Spectator) is disturbing.

Should female students feel safe on campus and comfortable to come forward if or when they’re assaulted?

Of course. But at what cost?

The rights of the accused are paramount in this country, and although Columbia is a private university, it should afford people accused of serious crimes the same rights to due process as anywhere else in America. And the advocates’ blanket refusal to even discuss flaws in current policy and labeling everyone not in the inner circle of political correctness as "outsiders" is ignorant at best.