In an email to FIRE supporters today, Sherry Warner-Seefeld, mother of Caleb Warner, writes about her son’s experience when he was wrongfully accused and found guilty of sexual assault by administrators at the University of North Dakota. We wanted to share Sherry’s words with Torch readers as a reminder of how important—and under attack—due process rights on campus are.
It’s hard to ignore the impact censorship has on our colleges and universities. The numbers are clear—59% of colleges maintain clearly unconstitutional speech codes. The cases are shocking—a student ordered to stop handing out Constitutions on Constitution Day. The policies are absurd—banning “inappropriate behavior or expression” and “harsh text messages or emails.” But there’s an even deeper impact that these facts and figures don’t often convey: the profound personal effect of disregarding fundamental rights on campus. Worse, that callous disregard is not even limited to our students’ free speech rights.
My son and I learned that lesson all too well.
In early 2010, my son Caleb was accused of sexual assault by a fellow student at the University of North Dakota (UND). Caleb claimed the encounter was entirely consensual, and the evidence collected created significant doubt about the accusations against him. Nonetheless, just weeks after the initial charges, Caleb was found guilty by a campus board, suspended for three years, and banned from stepping foot on any North Dakota public campus. Yet, during that same period, the local police began a formal investigation, reviewed the evidence, and chose not to charge Caleb. In fact, they charged my son’s accuser with filing a false report and issued a warrant for her arrest.
Yes, you read that right. The very same evidence that had been used to end my son’s academic career and brand him as a rapist was judged by local police as completely without merit.
How could Caleb be both guilty and innocent? Because all it takes to prove guilt on today’s campuses is 50.01% “certainty.” Without any consideration for the basic principles of American justice, UND had ruled that it was “more likely than not” that my son was guilty of assault. So much for “beyond a reasonable doubt” and due process.
While the university’s charges were difficult enough, nothing could have prepared us for UND’s shocking response to our request for a rehearing of Caleb’s case. Despite the police’s vindication of my son’s innocence, the administration refused to review his case and denied his request to return to UND. Denied the chance to uphold my son’s rights, I had never felt more helpless as a mother.
That’s why we turned to FIRE.
After FIRE wrote to UND and FIRE Chairman Harvey Silverglate took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to expose the university’s shocking disregard for my son’s rights, the school backed down, and Caleb finally got justice. On October 11, 2011, the university reversed its decision.
None of this would have been possible without FIRE—or you. Without your generous support, FIRE would not have been able to act as the advocate my son so desperately needed. Today, I’m asking you to renew that support, so that students like Caleb aren’t left to battle on their own.
Sadly, there are still plenty of battles on today’s campuses. In the years since Caleb’s case, we’ve seen reports of mishandled cases, suits alleging absurd rights violations, and personal testimonials from concerned parents just like me. These cases have made it clear—in the move to preserve campus safety, a necessary and important goal, our campuses are unnecessarily sacrificing individual rights. In fact, due process is under attack.
In the face of that attack, FIRE remains the last line of defense. As the most prominent and consistent national advocate for student rights, they continue to defend students just like Caleb, while providing vital support to parents just like me. Just as importantly, they’ve gone on the offensive, waging important federal battles to uphold rights and engaging in local debates to protect students.
FIRE also continues to actively educate and empower students on campus. With resources like their Guides, events like their annual student conference, and energetic public awareness efforts, FIRE is making progress. But this battle is only beginning, and as recent developments have proven, it’s getting more significant by the day. FIRE needs your support.
Caleb and I will be forever indebted to FIRE and its supporters. After witnessing FIRE’s dedication to student rights, I’ve joined its call for justice and begun working with fellow parents and students to advocate for change. (FIRE will let you know more about that effort soon, so please stay tuned.) My experience at UND and my new advocacy has shown me just how vital FIRE’s work on campus is. Their battle is about more than numbers and news reports, it’s about defending the rights of each and every individual student and faculty member. By supporting FIRE you can do more than strengthen a principle, you can help support real people.
I hope you will consider supporting that work with a 100% tax-deductible gift today. You can donate right now via PayPal or FIRE’s secure online donation form. Your support will help FIRE stand up for individual rights and defend due process on campuses nationwide.
Image: Caleb Warner – Al Jazeera America