Earlier this month, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville settled a Title IX lawsuit brought by eight women who alleged that the processes through which their sexual assault allegations were handled were biased against the complainants and in favor of the student-athlete respondents. The university did not admit to “guilt, negligence or unlawful acts,” but it conceded it provided the names of six local lawyers for accused student-athletes to contact and agreed not to give such information to accused athletes in the future.
The lawsuit claimed that the university and athletic staff “acted with deliberate indifference” and “failed to take corrective actions” in response to several allegations of sexual assault—an issue that may yet be resolved by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. But while much is left unclear, the university’s settlement agreement raises once again the question of if and how attorneys should be involved in campus sexual assault proceedings.
As Torch readers know, FIRE believes both accusers and accused students should have the right to active assistance of legal counsel throughout the investigative and disciplinary process. Under the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, universities are legally obligated to provide both parties the same opportunities to have an advisor with them during proceedings. It follows morally and practically that institutions should give both parties the same aid in obtaining legal counsel.
FIRE has long argued that the way colleges and universities are currently handling sexual misconduct cases fails all involved: accusers, accused students, and the rest of the campus community. Because the stakes are so high for both an alleged victim and an alleged perpetrator—especially if the accused also faces criminal charges—it is imperative that the parties have help ensuring their rights are protected and procedures are fair.
If the accusations in the lawsuit are true, it is problematic that the University of Tennessee gave accused student-athletes a leg up that they allegedly did not give accusing students or non-athletes. But rather than abandon the plan to help some students through the disciplinary process, the university could have aimed to equalize the system by increasing all students’ access to attorneys. This would have put accusers and accused students on equal footing while protecting both parties from further imbalances and injustices created by the broken college hearing system.
Without major changes to the status quo, simply eliminating student-athletes’ shortcut to legal representation will hardly ensure that campus sexual misconduct hearings will treat both parties fairly. Providing resources for both parties seeking competent advisors, however, would be a significant step in that direction.
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