U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter, left, listens to University of Montana President Royce Engstrom discuss an agreement on the handling of campus sexual assault cases on Thursday, May 9, 2013 in Missoula, Mont.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration turned its gaze on an issue plaguing campuses all across the country: sexual assault.
Using the University of Montana as a guinea-pig campus for the policy, the Department of Justice wrote a letter to the Missoula-based university, outlining its new framework for both preventing and reporting cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The letter comes in response to the department’s year-long investigation of sexual assault on the university’s campus, home to more than 14,000 students. The investigation was called after reports and allegations surfaced of both university and city police not following through with cases of rape and harassment. According to the Justice Department’s letter, the DOJ would look into “allegations that MPD has failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.”
Following the investigation, the DOJ, in partnership with the Department of Education, made the link between sexual assault and the law implicitly clear: Under-investigating sexual harassment and assault is a violation of Title IX and Title IV. From the letter:
“A university violates Title IX and Title IV if: (1) a student is sexually harassed and the harassing conduct is sufficiently serious to deny or limit the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the program (i.e., the harassment creates a hostile environment); (2) the university knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment; and (3) the university fails to take immediate effective action to eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
The department then laid out a new definition of sexual harassment: “unwelcome conduct of sexual nature.”
This definition hasn’t been sitting well with free-speech advocates.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argued that the new outlines violate First Amendment rights, calling the policy “so vague and broad” that nearly anyone on campus could be considered a harasser at one point or another. In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Lukianoff argued a student could be charged with violating the new conduct standards if he asks another student out on a date and the other student deems that request offensive.
And to some extent, it’s a possibility. After all, increasing the ways a college can sort through behavior does increase the chances of misrepresented crime. But what the First Amendment champions are missing is the silencing of sexually violated men and women across the country today.
Take Andrea Pino’s case at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. During her sophomore year, Pino was raped. But when Pino brought the case to officials after finding it difficult to finish school, she hit a wall, with advisers telling her that if she can’t handle her classes, maybe she didn’t belong at the school. Or Angie Epifano at Amherst College, who was told that the lack of physical evidence made trying her assaulter impossible, and besides, isn’t it time she forgives him anyway?
Of course, a university is the place where ideas should be freely exchanged, and threats to such academic freedom should be scrutinized. But in this case, the free speechers are missing out on an entire sector of the student population who are systematically silenced when universities aren’t compelled to act: the survivors.
So maybe a university might look into a case of an innocent date proposal gone wrong. But is the off-chance that someone will report an innocuous question worth sacrificing the knowledge that rape survivors have someone to turn to at their school?
Undoubtedly the new guidelines may hit a few bumps in the road. But the opportunity to offer unrelenting support to sexual assault survivors shouldn’t be forgotten.
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