Feds Gut Due Process in "Sexual Harassment" Cases

Jonathan Bean

The Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education has retreated from its firm stance in favor of due process and put forth a new standard for enforcing campus sexual harassment codes based on "the preponderance of evidence" (rather than "clear and convincing" evidence). AAUP and FIRE are concerned that this lower bar deprives faculty, staff and students accused of the due process they need and deserve.

Keep in mind that "sexual harassment" codes extend to a wide range of behavior that is not sexual: namely, creating a "hostile environment." The "hostile environment" category embraces speech and makes this an academic freedom concern, according to both AAUP and FIRE.

How low does this bar go? Pretty darn low. Consider a case from North Dakota where a male student (Caleb Warner) was suspended for three years after a female student accused him of rape. The police later found evidence that this woman had made a false accusation (they never happen, right?) and "lodged criminal charges [against her] . . . for filing a false police report."

So the male student was let back on campus, right? No. Based on the "preponderance of evidence" letter just issued by OCR, North Dakota State still refused to re-consider the case. In the administration's opinion, there was no "substantial new information" (bold for emphasis) and "Warner's three-year suspension 'was not a legal process but an educational one.'"

It's a bad turn of events because in 2003 the same Office of Civil Rights was concerned with the "convict first and fast" attitude of harassment officers in areas of speech. In 2003, the Office of Civil Rights issued a statement clarifying that enforcement did not require campuses to abandon the First Amendment. Today's OCR seems to think its lower standard is just fine, thank you. It will apply not only in cases of alleged rape but also "expressive activities" (speech).

This gutting of due process will leave administrations with the power to blur the difference between rape (a crime that must be proved, except on campuses) and innocent speech, however controversial. In either case, due process is there to prevent Star Chambers from walling themselves off from the rest of the world and declaring their authority Supreme on campus. So now places like North Dakota will stonewall and say: we don't deal with legal processes, only educational ones.

AAUP and FIRE have fought so many of these cases that they have lost their shock value.  Indifference breeds the arrogance of power. Fortunately, faculty/staff/students can organize or speak out. In some cases, they can bring in the AAUP and FIREs of the world and "sue the bastards." Perhaps that is the only thing that Power understands.

For more, read this FIRE FAQ on the new OCR mandates

HT: Adam Kissel

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