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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thinks you’re subject to its student conduct policy even if you’re not a student

If you think you’ve read a lot about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in this space lately, you’re right: This is the sixth time this fall that FIRE is writing about RPI. We’ve also sent the school three letters this year. Unfortunately, we can’t promise this will be the last time, either — RPI seems hellbent on violating its promises to students in new and noteworthy ways. And even if you’re already an expert on RPI’s unconscionable attempts to hinder its students’ expressive rights, keep reading. In this latest installment, we’ll cover RPI’s attempt to make the Star Chamber look like a bastion of due process.

Today, we’re writing about RPI’s attempt to subject a student from a different school to its disciplinary process — an attempt we’re only learning about because a court had to order RPI to stop violating the rights of John Doe (who used a pseudonym in his lawsuit). In a Nov. 6 ruling in Doe’s favor, a New York state court judge deemed RPI’s conduct “arbitrary” and “capricious,” and annulled RPI’s finding that Doe had sexually assaulted an RPI student.

This story begins in 2015 when Doe, a graduate student at a school that is not RPI, was in a relationship with an RPI student. Doe had never been a student at RPI. His only connection to RPI was his relationship with an RPI student. In the summer of 2016, after the relationship ended, the RPI student filed a Title IX complaint with RPI against Doe. As the court would later observe, the alleged conduct at issue in this case “took place off campus and was not in anyway (sic) related to an educational program or activity of RPI,” and that RPI “would have learned this from the complaint itself and statements made by the complainant.” Despite this, RPI launched an of Doe and interviewed him. Per the court, the interview constituted “a clear violation of [Doe’s] constitutional rights.”  

It is not difficult to see why the interview raised concerns with the court. First, RPI conveniently failed to tell Doe why it needed to interview him in advance. Doe didn’t find out about the purpose of the meeting until just before it started, when RPI’s interviewers gave him some documents and told him he was the subject of misconduct investigation. If that weren’t enough to raise due process concerns, it was also “obvious” to Judge Raymond J. Elliott that there was “a language and a possible cultural barrier” between Doe and RPI’s interviewers. So RPI hauled Doe in for questioning without telling him why, sprung a serious charge on him, and failed to ensure that he understood what was going on.

The end result of the investigation isn’t that surprising given the insufficient level of due process afforded to Doe. RPI found that, based on a preponderance of the evidence, Doe had violated its Sexual Misconduct Policy. After Doe’s attorneys could not reach a resolution with RPI, his attorneys filed suit, arguing that RPI had no jurisdiction over Doe and that, even if it did, its disciplinary process was flawed.

RPI argued that its actions were authorized by the now-rescinded April 4, 2011, Dear Colleague letter and the April 29, 2014, Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence. The court agreed in part, and recognized that RPI had an obligation to determine whether the alleged conduct occurred on campus, or, if the alleged conduct occurred off campus, to determine whether the school had control over the accused, or whether the conduct has continuing effects on campus. The court also approved of RPI’s efforts to provide services to the complainant and take other remedial steps, like informing her of her right to contact law enforcement and declaring Doe a persona non grata.

But to say the court generally sided with Doe would be an understatement.

Most importantly, the court ruled that RPI went too far in asserting jurisdiction over Doe and subjecting him to its disciplinary process. The court held that RPI should not have interviewed him or included his statement in its report. The remedy in this case was voiding Doe’s statement, and because RPI relied on Doe’s statement, the court annulled the report. The court also found that RPI had “no legal authority or obligation . . . to report, inform, publish or share any information or documentation with [Doe’s] academic institution regarding this alleged incident, and that [RPI’s] determination that they have the authority to do so is arbitrary and capricious.”

Unfortunately, RPI’s disinterest in the basic principles of due process is not an outlier. Earlier this year, FIRE released its Spotlight on Due Process report, in which we rated the top 53 universities in the country based on their inclusion of 10 elements of due process in their written disciplinary policies. Each institution could earn up to 20 points. The results were truly disappointing. Most schools earned a D or F. None of the schools received an A, and only two schools received Bs for both their sexual misconduct policies and non-sexual misconduct policies. RPI managed to score a 2. It received 1 point because it prohibits conflicts of interest and one point out of two possible points for providing a meaningful right to an appeal. Needless to say, that leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Here’s the real surprise: RPI, the school that asserted jurisdiction over another school’s student, didn’t have the lowest score. That particular “honor” belongs to Washington University in St. Louis, which received 0 out of 20 for its sexual misconduct policy. Lehigh University also managed to “beat” RPI, receiving a single point for its sexual misconduct policy.

Both of these schools should be ashamed that they managed to receive lower scores than a school that asserted jurisdiction over another institution’s student. It should go without stating that institutions should not assert jurisdiction over individuals who do not have a connection to their campuses. Unfortunately, after RPI’s attempt, it looks like a reminder is in order.

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