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SHORT TAKES


January 27, 2012

The Times Vilifies Another Athlete, Presenting No Evidence

Over the past year, FIRE has led a campaign of civil liberties organizations against the Obama administration's infamous "Dear Colleague" letter, which ordered colleges and universities to lower the burden of proof in their on-campus judicial proceedings. The letter demanded that all universities receiving federal funds employ a "preponderance of the evidence" standard (in other words, a 50.1 percent degree of certainty) to determine guilt on allegations of sexual assault.

Given that campus judicial procedures already are tilted, often wildly so, in favor of sexual-complaint accusers, the letter has produced a guilty-unless-proven-innocent standard for accused students. In at least one case, that of Caleb Warner at the University of North Dakota, the standard (before FIRE's involvement) amounted to guilty even when proved innocent by the local police.

The real-world effects of that standard were revealed in a horrifically framed New York Times article today on former Yale quarterback Patrick Witt.

In what sports media columnist Richard Deitsch accurately described as a "bombshell," the article, penned by Richard Pérez-Peña, revealed that earlier this fall, a fellow student accused Witt, a Rhodes Scholar finalist, of a sexual assault. The accuser did not file a complaint with the New Haven police. Nor at least on the basis of the material presented by the Times, did she go to the hospital for a rape exam. But she did turn to the new, post-"Dear Colleague" Yale judicial process. In that process, the accuser didn't even appear to have filed a formal complaint against Witt.

Somehow, however, the Rhodes Trust found out about his "informal" complaint, and demanded that Yale re-endorse Witt before moving forward with his candidacy. In response, Witt withdrew his Rhodes application, though he did so in a way that implied that the withdrawal was caused by a scheduling conflict between his Rhodes interview and the Harvard-Yale game. The article also leaves the impression that Witt has withdrawn from Yale.

In what could only be deemed a wildly misleading framing, here's how Pérez-Peña described the effects of the "Dear Colleague" letter: "The accusation against Witt, a history major who has expressed interest in a career in politics, came as Yale's handling of sexual harassment and assault is under intense scrutiny, including an investigation by the United States Department of Education. Last year, Yale overhauled its systems for handling such complaints and imposed a five-year ban on campus activities by a fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose members and pledges had engaged in highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment."

Yale "overhauled its systems for handling such complaints," because it was "under intense scrutiny." No mention of the lowered burden of proof in a system already tilted toward the accuser. No mention of the civil liberties impact of this new system. No mention, indeed, of anything that the "Dear Colleague" letter demanded. A typical Times reader would come away from the article with a false belief that the system changed from a structure that favored potential rapists to one that's fair and balanced.

But, of course, this is the New York Times. And if the Duke lacrosse case left no other legacy, it's that the paper frames its coverage of campus allegations of sexual assault in such a way that ignores issues of due process.

I don't know if Witt is innocent or guilty. But I do know that, at least at this stage, he's entitled to the something beyond a presumption of innocence, since his accuser did not file a report with police, receive a medical exam, or even file a formal campus complaint (in which he would have had some, albeit minor, due process protections). In the upside-down post-"Dear Colleague" era, however, Witt becomes the highest-profile case of a student who chose to withdraw from school rather than face a kangaroo system of "justice." That's not an angle the Times has deemed even worthy of a mention.

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KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of "Until Proven Innocent."

Comments (7)

Mastro:

While I think these students should be allowed a serious review to defend themselves- we should be aware that some of these allegations prove factual.

That being said I was a suspect back in college to a groping allegation. I was at a party where a guy who looked like me--thin dark hair-- unhooked a woman's bra.

Luckily I was wearing a blue shirt - not the flannel shirt the suspect was wearing.

If I had been wearing flannel I probably would have been expelled from school.

Ron Nord:

After the debacle of false accusations backed by the left wing fascists of Duke, you would think that the NYT's would be more careful of lynching. The Times is a proponent of Star Chamber tactics and scenarios more akin to Kafka's "The Trial" than justice.

Hieronymus The Troll Braintree:

If by the "sexual harassment" episode, they're referring to the chant of "No means yes! Yes means anal!" then, once again, a brilliant send up of campus attitudes towards men is being twisted into an attack on women who, being strong and in every way the equal of men, nevertheless cannot be expected to withstand the twin evils of irony or sarcasm.

Rich:

So let's recap shall we?

Guilty until proven innocent.

Every guy is a rapist in waiting.

Etc.

Etc.

And yet, these same schools wonder why the number of male students is dropping.

Really?

Marty:

The question I am left with is why anyone, anywhere, takes seriously anything that appears in the NYT. Other than inertia, that institution should have absolutely no credibility---its editorials make no sense and ignore plain facts in order to get to per-ordained conclusions, its so-called news stories are often op-ed or propaganda pieces by the reporters and their editors. The truth value of the whole thing is small and it's impossible to tell if any particular item is truthful or not unless you look to other sources, in which case why not just use those?

I just don't understand what more the NYT has to do to convince people that they are just a bunch of pathological liars with a printing press.

Trebruchet:

Last week I was found guilty of "intimidation" by a student conduct committee at Oakland University, Rochester, MI, for turning in an English assignment, despite a letter from FIRE stating the assignment was protected speech and documenting the appropriate legal precedents.

I am appealing this travesty through the University and if unsuccessful, through the courts.

Glenn McIntosh, Dean of Students, told me the Constitution "doesn't apply here." We'll just see about that.

Lee:

I suspect that an awful lot of accusations are from girls who regret being stupid the night before and are looking for a salve for the conscience: "I was drunk, therefore, I had no way of being able to consent, therefore, I was sexually assaulted,' therefore I can hold someone else responsible for my own bad choices."

I also suspect that there are a lot of accusations from thin-skinned girls. Instead of talking directly to the guy who said or did something "inappropriate," they go running to the office of poor-girls-need-someone-to-take-care-of-them, and swear out a complaint.

People need to be responsible for their own behavior. The OCR (and universities) have decided that only men have to be held responsible, but women can pretty much do whatever they want and have no accountability. It's one thing for a young man (or a group young men) to target a girl, and deliberately ply her with drinks in order to get her drunk to sexually assault her. That deserves the full punishment allowed. But it is completely different for a young woman to get drunk, jump in bed with some guy, and the next morning, change her mind. She should not be allowed to ruin the life of that young man, because of her own stupidity. And the OCR has paved the way for women to do just that. And I am sure they are...

On not unrelated note, I sympathize with that Yale fraternity. Between Yale Sex Week and the "Slut Walk," Yale had established an atmosphere of pretty much anything sexual goes on campus. The university has made it abundantly clear that the students do not have to behave like ladies and gentlemen. So when a fraternity behaves as badly as the low bar that was set, they get in trouble.

If it makes any difference, I am a woman who went to college in the early eighties. Did my fair share of drinking back then, and yet, I never just hopped into bed with some guy. And still had the presence of mind to fend off unwanted advances.

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