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'Tampa Bay Times' on Potential for Civil Rights Violations at Florida State

For her most recent columnTampa Bay Times columnist Robyn E. Blumner spoke with FIRE’s Robert Shibley about campus sexual misconduct hearings. Blumner discussed why universities are “stuck in the middle” between allegations that they are not doing enough to punish students accused of sexual misconduct and reminders from FIRE and other civil liberties organizations that they must grant students a fair hearing.

As Blumner points out, these competing pressures could have significant ramifications for Jameis Winston, a Florida State University (FSU) football player accused of sexually assaulting a woman approximately a year ago. In late November, State Attorney Willie Meggs decided not to prosecute Winston, but that decision doesn’t preclude FSU from conducting its own investigation and imposing its own sanctions against him. As Torch readers know, a campus hearing would likely not include all of the procedural safeguards that would have applied in a criminal case against Winston.

Speaking with Blumner, Robert elaborated on the kinds of problems FIRE often sees in campus disciplinary hearings for sexual misconduct, such as a failure to obtain evidence:

[O]ne case ... turned on whether a person was at the scene or not and investigators had failed to take the obvious steps of checking the closed-circuit television recordings and reviewing the electronic door swipes to see who came and went.

At most schools, a finding of responsibility for sexual misconduct requires only that the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof supports that result. This standard is worrisomely low on its own, but especially so in light of the possibility of colleges missing critical evidence.

Exacerbating the danger of incorrect findings is the lack of participation of counsel. As Blumner notes:

Students accused of sexual misconduct at FSU don't get a lawyer. They can bring an advocate to the hearing, but that person can only quietly advise the student. Essentially, students are expected to represent themselves on charges that can ruin their academic careers.

Read the rest of Blumner’s article in the Tampa Bay Times.

Image: FSU School of Communication - National Communication Association

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