COMMENTARY: People should not be so quick to dismiss DeVos’s changes
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month — a truly noble cause. To help raise awareness, several Rutgers organizations stepped up to bring former Vice President Joe Biden to campus to talk about sexual assault, violence and prevention.
With the revelations about President Donald J. Trump, Harvey Weinstein and countless other people — sexual assault and harassment have been rightfully pushed into the limelight. Prevention of sexual assault and punishment of perpetrators should be of paramount importance to people in power. But it is important to realize that not everyone who is accused of a crime is guilty of it.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration did many things right and they should be applauded for their initiative. That being said, there are areas in which Obama’s administration made mistakes — I believe some of the policies regarding Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fall under this domain.
In 2011, the Obama administration sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter, which expanded the scope of Title IX and gave universities directions on how to handle sexual harassment and assault on campuses. As much of the American higher education system is publicly funded and not adhering to these demands could put that funding at risk, public institutions complied. That letter was incredibly well-intentioned but what sounds great in theory doesn’t always work well in practice.
That letter has contributed to a tremendous violation of students’ constitutional rights and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was right to strike it down.
First, the letter instructs universities to use a significantly lower standard of proof. Prior to the letter, sexual assault cases had to meet the “clear and convincing” standard — this means that there isn’t significant doubt that the accused is guilty. After the letter, the standard was dropped to a “preponderance of the evidence” — this means there may be significant doubt that the accused is guilty.
In percentage terms, this is 50 percent plus one. If a student should be found guilty under these policies, they are punished severely. While those who are guilty should absolutely be punished, lowering the standard could ensnare those not guilty. In a legal court, sexual assault is still subject to the far more serious standard. Why should the amount of proof needed to convict be cut in half for campuses?
The letter went significantly further than just lowering the standard of proof. It allowed for accusers to continually retry their allegations against the accused by appealing a not guilty ruling. Clear as day, this leads to double jeopardy on steroids. In no other case can a ruling be appealed ad infinitum — why should that change on campus?
Furthermore, the letter disallows cross-examination. This should be raising alarm bells — if one cannot question their accuser, how would they get a fair trial? How can there be a fair trial? How can those in charge have a fair and just view of the evidence if the accused is not allowed to cross-examine the accuser? The removal of this basic right calls into question how these proceedings could be referred to as a “fair trial” and should cause all Americans and students to cry foul.
These policies have had real-life effects all over the country. A male student at Amherst College was deprived of his due process rights due to these policies and this resulted in his wrongful expulsion.
DeVos reforming these Obama-era guidelines would be a victory for both the American judicial system and civil liberties. Sexual assault and rape have no place on college campuses and everyone should do all they can to prevent it and properly punish those who commit this crime.
The idea of a fair trial and the protection of these liberties isn’t a partisan issue. Pundits from across the political spectrum have come out against the Obama regulations — from Emily Yoffe at The Atlantic to the editorial board of National Review. Politicians from across the spectrum have rightfully raised objections — recently Gov. Edmund Brown (D-Calif.) vetoed a bill codifying these into law in California. In the statement released with the veto, Brown called into issue problems with these regulations. Brown notes that these policies have “also unintentionally resulted in some colleges’ failure to uphold due process for accused students.”
The prevention of sexual assault shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but the rule of law shouldn’t be one either. Universities must continue to work to end sexual assault on campus, as Biden said. That being said, the way to do this is not by trampling civil liberties with reckless abandon.
Anik Joshi is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore double majoring in economics and political science.
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