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‘Rolling Stone’ Developments Underline Need for Professional Response to Campus Sexual Assault

This afternoon, new reporting from The Washington Post called into serious question the veracity of a Rolling Stone story regarding an alleged 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA). Following publication of the Post’s story, the UVA fraternity identified by Rolling Stone as home to the alleged gang rape’s perpetrators released a statement disputing key facts of the account. In response, Rolling Stone has now issued a note stating that the magazine has concluded that its trust in Jackie, the young woman at the center of the story, was “misplaced,” and apologizing to “anyone who was affected by the story.”

Given the immense public attention and institutional action generated by the Rolling Stone story and the continuing criminal investigation into Jackie’s allegations, The Washington Post’s reporting will further intensify the debate on how best to respond to allegations of campus sexual assault. But both Rolling Stone’s flawed reporting and the ensuing fallout serve to confirm FIRE’s position: Only law enforcement is properly equipped to adjudicate allegations of sexual assault.

Jackie’s allegations should have been investigated by law enforcement—not university administrators—two years ago. Whether Jackie’s account is true or false, the immediate involvement of law enforcement would have provided the best chance to see dangerous criminals imprisoned or the accused cleared of suspicion.

As FIRE has repeatedly argued, sexual assault allegations require a professional response from law enforcement, not a self-interested campus judiciary. Universities can competently provide alleged victims with resources, counseling, and remedial measures. But they cannot consistently provide just outcomes upon which all parties can rely.

Only the criminal justice system has the resources and authority necessary to investigate allegations, gather evidence, and, if necessary, arrest and try the alleged perpetrators. Only the criminal justice system can ensure that those accused of such a heinous crime receive the proper due process safeguards necessary to arrive at a fair and just verdict. If the accused is found guilty, only the criminal justice system can enforce the proper punishment.

At least one study suggests that most campus rapes are committed by serial offenders. If so, the harshest penalty available to universities—expulsion—is flatly inadequate. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said recently, “The idea that the best we can do against serial rapists—if that’s what the data is showing—is kick them out of Swarthmore, so they can prey on the 70 percent of the population that isn’t wealthy enough to go to college, is an outrage.”

Rolling Stone’s apparent failure to properly investigate Jackie’s account does not change the fact that our current system for responding to campus sexual assault is broken. If law enforcement too often fails victims of sexual assault, we must pursue reforms that ensure victims will be taken seriously and their claims vigorously and effectively pursued, not simply pass the duty to educational institutions ill-equipped to handle it.

Entrusting colleges with a grave responsibility that they cannot possibly fulfill is not the answer. As FIRE’s Robert Shibley argued in TIME earlier this week, “Neither accusers nor the accused will get justice if Title IX continues to be interpreted to force colleges to investigate and adjudicate these crimes themselves. That system has failed.”

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