Newsweek, California, and Campus Rape Tribunals

KC Johnson

January 9, 2014

From Newsweek (via Inside Higher Ed) comes news of an unusual, but excessively limited, proposal from California Assemblyman Mike Gatto.

In response to events at Occidental, Gatto says he’ll introduce a bill requiring colleges in California to report some claims of sexual assault to police. This is an excellent idea–trained law enforcement officers, not campus administrators, should investigate criminal offenses. But the Gatto bill contains a critical exception. He says that colleges will have the right to keep the police in the dark if that’s what the accuser wants.

In this respect, the Gatto bill, if adopted, would place the force of law behind the idea that it’s OK for a public institution (in this case, a university) not to cooperate with law enforcement in investigating a serious criminal offense. The practical result of Gatto’s proposal would be to confine at least some California students to the Alice-in-Wonderland environment of too many campus disciplinary tribunals. At the least, therefore, his measure could mandate that colleges provide meaningful due process when accusers veto taking a case to the local police.

Take, for instance, the procedures at Occidental, whose handling of allegations of campus sexual assaults Gatto says prompted the introduction of his bill. “Due process” at the college means that a male student can be found guilty of sexual assault even if a female student said “yes.” The accused student cannot have access to a lawyer in a disciplinary proceeding. The college has the right to withhold relevant evidence, even if exculpatory, if the college concludes the material might violate federal privacy guidelines. And the disciplinary officials have the right to allow an accuser to testify behind a curtain, or via Skype.

If Gatto (who has a J.D. from Loyola) is as interested in fairness as he claims, he should amend his measure to address such matters.

The Newsweek article, penned by Katle Baker, also exemplifies the one-sided way too many journalists cover the issue of campus sexual assault allegations. Baker liberally quotes from accusers, who she dubs “sexual assault survivors” or “victim[s],” even though there’s no evidence in her article that the accusers even filed police charges, much less saw their cases brought to trial with guilty verdicts. Indeed, both of the accusers to whom Baker spoke explicitly said that they didn’t go to the police. How the Newsweek reporter determined they were “sexual assault survivors,” therefore, remains unclear.

Baker also uncritically cites a Department of Justice report to college women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the rest of the population.” If true, she’s buried the lede (the item comes well down in her column) and Gatto is ignoring the issue–by this telling of events, violent crime is all but rampant at most universities, and legislators such as Gatto should consider legislation that would designate campuses high-crime neighborhoods, with the additional law enforcement officials that normally come with such a designation. That Gatto doesn’t seem interested in such a move, and that Baker doesn’t seem interested in exploring the logical extension of her “factual” claim, suggests that neither really believes the argument that violent crime against women on campus is so much higher than in the general population.