Campus Show Trials

Harvey Silverglate, co-founder and chairman of the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a Cato adjunct scholar, has an excellent op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal highlighting the emerging problem of due process violations on college campuses. As Ilya Shapiro has written about previously, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently sent out a letter outlining new procedural requirements for dealing with claims of sexual harassment and assault. Despite its cordial opening — it begins with the words “Dear Colleague” — the letter carries the de facto force of law: universities that receive public funds (nearly all of them) may have their funding stripped if they don’t follow the new guidelines.

The new guidelines threaten to turn the campus courts at some of our most august institutions into “kangaroo courts” that ignore basic rights of the accused, such as the right to confront accusers. Most disturbingly, universities are now commanded to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in adjudicating claims of sexual assault, including rape. The preponderance of the evidence standard is little more than a hunch, and is often described as a simple 50.01% probability of guilt.

In 1970, in the case of In re Winshop, the Supreme Court ruled that a standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is constitutionally required in criminal cases. The Court wrote:

The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt has this vital role in our criminal procedure for cogent reasons. The accused, during a criminal prosecution, has at stake interests of immense importance, both because of the possibility that he may lose his liberty upon conviction and because of the certainty that he would be stigmatized by the conviction. Accordingly, a society that values the good name and freedom of every individual should not condemn a man for commission of a crime when there is reasonable doubt about his guilt.

Moreover, use of the reasonable doubt standard is indispensable to command the respect and confidence of the community in applications of the criminal law. It is critical that the moral force of the criminal law not be diluted by a standard of proof that leaves people in doubt whether innocent men are being condemned. It is also important in our free society that every individual going about his ordinary affairs have confidence that his government cannot adjudge him guilty of a criminal offense without convincing a proper factfinder of his guilt with utmost certainty.

While universities are not putting anyone in jail, merely being accused of a rape, much less being convicted by your university, has many of the same concerns as a criminal trial. As if to supply an object lesson that illustrates the Supreme Court’s well-articulated concerns, Silverglate opens his op-ed with the following harrowing story:

On Jan. 27, 2010, Mr. [Caleb] Warner learned he was accused of sexual assault by another student at the University of North Dakota. Mr. Warner insisted that the episode, which occurred the month prior, was entirely consensual. No matter to the university: He was charged with violating the student code and suspended for three years. Three months later, state police lodged criminal charges against his accuser for filing a false police report. A warrant for her arrest remains outstanding.

Among several reasons the police gave for crediting Mr. Warner’s claim of innocence was evidence of a text message sent to him by the woman indicating that she wanted to have intercourse with him. This invitation, combined with other evidence that police believe indicates her untruthfulness, has obvious implications for her charge of rape.

Nevertheless, university officials have refused to allow Mr. Warner a re-hearing—much less a reversal of their guilty verdict. When the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties group of which I am board chairman, wrote to University President Robert O. Kelley to protest, the school’s counsel, Julie Ann Evans, responded. She wrote that the university didn’t believe that the fact that Mr. Warner’s accuser was charged with lying to police, and has not answered her arrest warrant, represented “substantial new information.” In any event, she argued, the campus proceeding “was not a legal process but an educational one.”

In the wake of cases like the Duke lacrosse case, it is troubling that the OCR has decided that the rights of the accused on college campuses need fewer protections. Expect to see more travesties of justice in the months and years to come if these regulations stand. Thankfully, FIRE is on the front lines fighting for students’ constitutional rights.