The 18th-century British jurist William Blackstone pronounced, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” There are few principles of law we hold more sacred than “innocent until proven guilty.” For most of the last decade, however, this doctrine has had negligible impact in matters of campus sexual assault.
There are policies of the previous administration that President Joe Biden is already in the process of overturning or altering. It would be well, however, for him to reconsider his campaign promise to “return to and then build on” the Obama administration’s Title IX policies, which led to over 500 investigations of accused students and shattered an untold number of lives. Having himself been the object of unproven allegations of sexual assault, he must look into his own heart before reinstituting campus procedures that make a mockery of justice.
The victim of sexual assault is likely to bear the emotional and psychological scars for years to come. It is a moral imperative for an institution of learning to protect students from the trauma that ensues. But the mirror image of that horror happens when an innocent person is unjustly found guilty of sexual assault and punished – typically by expulsion or long-term suspension – by his college. The reputational scars and career damage may last a lifetime. Due process provides a greater likelihood that punishment will fall on the guilty and not those wrongfully accused.
There are many instances in which the courts have found wrongful prosecution. Sometimes the case hinged on spectacular mendacity, like the invented account of a brutal gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house in 2014 that provided Rolling Stone with a fraudulent cover story. Or the dishonest prosecution launched by an opportunistic district attorney—later disbarred—of Duke lacrosse players that showed how quickly a prestigious university, from the president on down, called for punishment when no crime was committed.
Last spring, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signed a Final Rule that provided key definitions and regulations for the enforcement of Title IX when students accuse other students of campus sexual assault. In addition to the rule’s protection of alleged victims, including reporting procedures and survivor support, it notably provides to the accused the rights to present, cross-examine, and challenge evidence in campus hearings.
You do not have to be a constitutional scholar to recognize that Secretary DeVos was right to redress a longstanding ethical and procedural abuse. The Biden administration must not reverse her important work and bring back the guilt-presuming process that the Obama administration demanded in its April 4, 2011, “Dear Colleague Letter” and in subsequent, egregious misinterpretations of Title IX.
These extra-legal Department of Education decrees, which never went through a formal regulatory review process, pressured universities to stack proceedings against accused students. They even threatened to take away institutions’ federal funding if they allowed cross-examination of accusers in campus hearings. Thus, did the Obama administration deprive accused students of what the Supreme Court has repeatedly called “beyond any doubt the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”
“Innocent until proven guilty” does not fare well against dramatic claims of sexual violence. At the extreme end, recall then-congressman Jared Polis, now governor, who inverted Blackstone’s wisdom by stating in a House higher education subcommittee meeting on sexual assault: “If there are 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard, maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people. We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty, we’re talking about them being transfer to another university, for crying out loud.”
For crying out loud, indeed. What college or university is going to admit a person, innocent or not, who has been expelled on a charge of sexual assault? What company, scholarship foundation, or professional school is going to take that person whose academic record will forever show expulsion or even suspension for sexual assault?
President Biden should consider documented cases like that of the Amherst student who was expelled based on a woman’s claim that he had forced her into sexual contact more than 20 months before—even though her own text messages proved that in fact she had been the active party when he was blackout drunk in her room.
Had the accusations hurled against President Biden on the campaign trail been leveled years ago against College Joe and adjudicated under a campus regime like the one later decreed by the Obama-Biden administration, he would probably have had no meaningful chance to defend himself or clear his name. His career and American history would have been entirely different.