White House Report on Sexual Assault on Campus Neglects Rights of the Accused

The White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault has published a 20-page report detailing its plan to fight sexual assault on college campuses. While the report details many suggestions on how universities can better handle accusations of sexual assault, such as increasing transparency, some note that the report fails to acknowledge a rampant problem associated with sexual assault—the infringement of rights of those accused, including those falsely accused, by university adjudication systems.

Accusations of sexual assault can have devastating effects on a student. Accused students must navigate a confusing adjudication process conducted by the university. Students face expulsion, with the stigma of sexual assault attached to their educational record. Through an adjudication process, universities can deem students to have committed acts that are felonies in most states.

In a Cognoscenti Boston NPR article, attorney Wendy Kaminer details three ways in which the White House report disregards the rights of students accused of sexual assault.

First, Kaminer notes that “students leveling accusations of assault are automatically described as ‘survivors’ or ‘victims’ (not alleged victims or complaining witnesses), implying that their accusations are true.” Kaminer states that use of these terms fails to acknowledge the possibility that the accused student is innocent and creates an inherent bias.

Next, the White House report calls for a study into varying university adjudication systems, including a single investigator model. Kaminer labels this a “a prescription for injustice.” She notes that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said this model would allow a single school administrator to serve as detective, judge, and jury.

Finally, the White House report calls for universities to prohibit cross-examination in sexual assault cases. In criminal cases, the constitutional right to confront adverse witnesses requires permitting cross-examination… Kaminer remarks that while this change would protect victims from harassment, it would also protect accusers who are lying or mistaken.

Overall, Kaminer criticizes the White House report for encouraging universities to undertake what looks like a legal proceeding but lacks protections a decent legal system must have. Kaminer calls on the White House task force and on universities to remember “every student accused of a crime or disciplinary infraction has an equal right to due process and fair adjudication of charges.”