What the Times Won’t Say about College Sex

New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña has had a disturbing record of slanted coverage of campus sexual assault issues, but he brought his performance to new lows in an article posted to the Times website Tuesday afternoon.

MTC readers will doubtless remember Pérez-Peña’s name; he authored the wildly slanted Times exposé on former Yale quarterback Patrick Witt’s aborted candidacy for a Rhodes Fellowship. Pérez-Peña’s piece amounted to a character assault: he strongly–but falsely implied–that Witt had withdrawn from Yale, and he devoted a chunk of his article to discussing “two minor arrests” by Witt that no one in the case considered relevant. His reporting drew a rebuke from the Times public editor. And the Yale Daily News reported Witt’s side of the story, bringing key facts to the table that Pérez-Peña had conveniently ignored before rushing his “exposé” to print.

Beyond smearing Witt, Pérez-Peña’s piece was most notable for the cavalier–some might say deliberately deceptive–manner in which he presented the procedural questions at play in the case. He noted that an anonymous student, whose identity he did not know and could not verify, had filed an “informal complaint” against Witt. His article never mentioned Yale’s “informal complaint” procedure, which doubtless would have stunned any civil libertarians reading the article. At Yale, an informal complaint can be triggered by a “worry”; initiates a system in which “the student bringing the complaint retains considerable control, although not total, as the process unfolds”; and ensures that the accused student not only lacks a right to legal representation but a right to present evidence of his innocence, or to present any evidence at all.

Finally, Pérez-Peña offered a seemingly ignorant–some might say deliberately deceptive–description of the controversy surrounding the demands of the “Dear Colleague” letter. Because Yale’s “handling of sexual harassment and assault is under intense scrutiny,” he wrote, “last year, Yale overhauled its systems for handling such complaints.” At no point did he mention the terms of the “Dear Colleague” letter; the Times reporter evidently considered irrelevant the OCR’s assault on campus due process.

His treatment of the Witt case provides the necessary context through which to view Pérez-Peña’s latest offering. The article describes a loose coalition of student activists who have filed Title IX complaints in an attempt to weaken the due-process protections of their campuses on sexual assault cases. I’ve written previously, and skeptically, about one such filing, at the University of North Carolina.

Pérez-Peña’s current article uncritically accepts the petitioners’ account of their cases, and offers no quotes from a defense attorney, a civil libertarian, or anyone who might be skeptical of the need to minimize due process protections on campus. His critical passage, however, comes when he describes the “Dear Colleague” letter:

“Another change came in 2011, when the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to all colleges about a legal provision against sex-based discrimination, commonly known as Title IX. The letter did not markedly change interpretation of the law; [emphasis added] instead, it reminded colleges of obligations that many of them had ignored, and signaled that there was a new seriousness in Washington about enforcing them.

“‘Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX,’ the letter said.”

This description is nothing short of remarkable. In a news article, the Times has presented–as fact–an assertion that a mandate to lower the threshold for a guilty finding (to a preponderance of evidence) “did not markedly change interpretation of the law.” The newspaper of record has presented–as fact, in a news article–a claim that introducing double jeopardy to campus sexual assault cases (and only to those cases) merely “reminded colleges of obligations that many of them had ignored.”

Title IX was approved in 1972. Yet according to the Times, colleges and universities for 39 years misinterpreted the statute in such a way to provide a minimum of due process protections to accused students–only to be “reminded” of obvious “obligations” that they too long “had ignored.” Pérez-Peña’s article, unsurprisingly, does not identify the clause of Title IX that creates an “obligation” for double jeopardy for students accused of sexual assaults.

I’d expect such bias from Wendy Murphy. But from a supposedly neutral reporter for the nation’s paper of record? Shameful.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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