Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sen. McCaskill acknowledges due process needed in efforts to curb campus sexual violence

Sen. Claire McCaskill is holding roundtable discussions about sexual crimes on campus. She wants to insure that survivors are getting the services they need, and that the sexual assault perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.

Last month, we expressed concerns over the Senator's efforts. She had circulated an extensive survey about sexual assault to 350 college and university presidents. The survey was promulgated by McCaskill’s Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which is charged with “ensuring that the federal government spends taxpayer money as wisely and effectively as possible.” We wondered what that particular committee has to do with sexual assault on American college campuses.

We opined that it is a worthy impulse to gather information about the ways American institutions of higher education treat serious criminality, but noted that this survey is troubling in several critical respects and should be recalled and rewritten.

First, the survey repeatedly classifies persons who make accusations of sexual misconduct as “victims,” and in one place, it calls persons merely accused of sexual misconduct “offenders.” That should be unacceptable to all persons of good will.

Words matter, and it is never proper to brand persons accused of sexual misconduct as guilty merely by virtue of the accusation. This, of course, does a grave disservice to the presumptively innocent. We take offense when newspapers do it (we once complained to the New York Times for calling a rape accuser a “victim,” and the Times reporter immediately removed the word “victim” in the on-line content of the story), and it is all the more offensive when our elected representatives do it. Sen. McCaskill represents not just accusers but persons who are accused as well.

Second, the survey contains a most troubling, and frankly bizarre, query on page 14:

Below is a list of policies and procedures that may discourage victims from disclosing and reporting assaults at some schools
1. Disclosure of offender’s rights in the adjudication process
. . . .
The survey asks the college to identify whether or not it adheres to this policy.

The survey’s implication seemed to be that it is somehow improper to insure that students accused of serious sexual offenses are aware of their rights. Advising the presumptively innocent of their rights is both a fundamental and immutable aspect of due process long enshrined in the laws of every enlightened civilization. A student’s due process rights should never be considered a candidate for elimination or compromise because they might “discourage” an accuser from making a formal report, and to suggest otherwise is both appallingly insensitive to those accused and offensive to long-settled principles of fairness. It should have no place in a survey promulgated by a United States Senate subcommittee.

This survey is but the latest manifestation of hostility to the rights of young men accused of sexual offenses on campus. College administrators, already skittish about federal oversight of their handling of sexual assault, need to be assured by Senator McCaskill and her subcommittee that disclosing the accused’s rights in the adjudication process is not merely acceptable but mandatory.

Sen. McCaskill held her first campus sexual assault roundtable, and she made sure to say this: “I know that that’s not all that’s required. I also want to make sure that the steps we take going forward are the right ones, and that we respect the rule of law in this country, which includes due process."

Thank you, Sen. McCaskill. Words matter. They matter when an accuser is improperly called a "victim" and they matter when a United States senator reminds her listeners about the importance of due process. In the public discourse about campus sexual violence, there needs to be honest dialogue about appropriate measures to attack the problem, but due process must always be part of the conversation.

Every civilized society must strive to eradicate heinous criminality by punishing offenders, but it also must insure that the innocent aren't punished with them. The latter concern typically is absent from the public discourse. Sen. McCaskill should be encouraged to bring due process into every discussion on this subject.