Friday, April 12, 2013

Outrage at the University of North Carolina because there was no campus alert about a sexual assault claim that turned out to be false, but there was a campus alert about the false sexual assault claim

The University of North Carolina's failure to issue a campus alert for a sexual assault claim that turned out to be false has created a maelstrom of controversy on campus. There is outrage that the school did not automatically issue a campus alert last Saturday based on nothing more than the fact that a sexual assault accusation had been made. And there is also outrage that, after a short investigation revealed the claim to be false, the false claim was the subject of a campus alert.

Earlier this week, the school's Department of Public Safety charged a non-UNC student for falsely reporting the sexual assault. An information message from Alert Carolina, dated Monday evening, stated that a warning message about the alleged sexual assault was not released after the initial report on Saturday because no imminent threat was observed for the University community and that such a notice could have damaged the integrity of the investigation. A thorough investigation determined that the report was in fact false, and charges were filed on Monday. See here.

Jezebel attacks the decision to forego issuing a warning message after the initial sexual assault claim not by addressing the facts and the merits of the decision, but by citing UNC's alleged mishandling of other sexual assault matters. "Their excuses about no imminent threat to the community and compromising the integrity of the investigation are questionable considering how they've handled things in the past," wrote Laura Beck.

What specific instances does Beck cite to show that UNC bungled other sexual assault cases? For one, Beck mentions the fact that the former dean of students has claimed she was forced by the university's counsel office to under-report sexual assault cases. Beck does not bother to note that UNC has denied the charge

Then Beck blithely exclaims that UNC "threatened a rape victim with expulsion for speaking to the press."  The latter reference is to Landen Gambill, who accused her ex-boyfriend of rape. In the one and only adjudication of the ex-boyfriend's alleged sexual misconduct, a UNC board -- consisting mostly of women -- unanimously found him not guilty. Gambill did not appeal, and she did not file criminal charges. Only later, after she made the purported injustice to her a cause célèbre did the ex-boyfriend file a claim against her because of her "disruptive or intimidating behavior" toward him. Under the circumstances, it is grossly unjust for Beck to assume Landen Gambill is a "victim" -- which must mean that the ex-boyfriend is a rapist -- just because Landen Gambill keeps saying it. The hanging trees of the Old South were witness to similar assumptions of guilt. Beck's bias should exclude her voice from the public discourse on this serious issue.

In any event, issuing campus alerts for obviously unfounded rape claims does no favors to rape victims. In story after story after story reported here and in our predecessor blog, we see outrage over the panic caused by false rape claims. The integrity of every rape victim suffers a blow every time the claim behind a panic is exposed as a lie.

While some are outraged that the initial unfounded sexual assault report was not the subject of a campus alert, others seem even more outraged that the false claim, which was charged, was the subject of a campus alert. Jay Smith, a professor of history at UNC, told The Huffington Post he was so disturbed by the alert that he's arranged a meeting Friday with the head of DPS to discuss it. "It's like Groundhog day in Chapel Hill, because our leaders seem chronically unable to get out of their own way," Smith said.

Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados can't help but appreciate the topsy turvy flavor to it all. Everything about the story is backward.

We've previously reported that the atmosphere on campus at UNC is not especially friendly to the presumptively innocent accused of sex offenses. Last year, we reported that the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defended the school's decision to substantially lower the burden of proof in such cases from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence” with a rationale that was startling. The editorial acknowledged that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard conforms to an innocent-until-proven-guilty principle, but then asserted: "In practice, however, such a high burden of proof can feel tantamount to victim-blaming." Conflating critical due process protections that insure only the guilty are punished for serious offenses with "victim blaming" manifests a woeful lack of schooling about bedrock principles of liberty.

The Daily Tar Heel also exclaimed: "In hearing cases of sexual assault, the needs of the victim should be given first priority." In fact, the "first priority" in any disciplinary hearing is to do justice. Blackstone's formulation instructs that it is "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." (Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765.)

In contrast, the school's administration seems to respect the rights of the presumptively innocent. Winston Crisp, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UNC, responded to news that a complaint has been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights challenging his school's response to allegations of sexual assault with words that resonate with this blog:
The complaints of sexual assault heard by the University’s Student Grievance Committee . . . almost always involve charges brought by one UNC student against another UNC student. 
When you hear only one student’s description of what happened to him or her, it’s easy to pass judgment. When you listen carefully to both students, the task often becomes more difficult. 
Talk with any student who has served on a hearings panel responsible for reaching a decision in one of these cases, and I think you will hear how gut-wrenching and agonizing the deliberations can be.
See here. Too bad the wider UNC community doesn't harbor the same respect for the critical balance between punishing offenders and insuring that the innocent aren't punished with them.