The Times and Sexual Assault at Florida State

The other day, the New York Times published a lengthy investigative piece on Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Much of the article, written by Walt Bogdanich, has little to do with higher education, per se–the Tallahassee Police Department comes across very poorly. Winston come across even worse, since the Times reveals that he was involved in an incident with a second woman. The incident is described in extremely vague terms, but does not appear to have been an alleged sexual assault; that said, it’s hard to believe that Winston could have won the Heisman Trophy if this article had appeared last November instead of this week.

The Times‘ treatment of Florida State, however, is more problematic. The Times doesn’t challenge the local prosecutor’s conclusion that there wasn’t probable cause to bring charges against Winston–meaning that any fair disciplinary tribunal at FSU could not have found him guilty, even under the preponderance-of-evidence standard. Yet the paper seems eager to raise questions about the university’s response, perhaps to fit the article’s frame, prepped by myriad pieces from Richard Perez-Pena: that “the case has unfolded as colleges and universities across the country are facing rising criticism over how they deal with sexual assault, as well as questions about whether athletes sometimes receive preferential treatment.”

The Times‘ lengthy article cites two additional cases other than Winston’s. The first was mentioned only in passing, but appeared to reveal that the university treated sexual assault allegations seriously: “A Times review of sexual assault complaints handled by the campus police last year found that in one case, officers asked for the Potbelly’s [a local bar] video when they were trying to identify a suspected assailant who had been seen at the bar.” The article does not discuss anything more about the case.

The second involved a complaint from a mother of a student, who claimed that her daughter had been sexually assaulted at a fraternity. The mother said that “the university should take a harder stand on the men who are identified as having committed rapes.” But the next line in the article reveals that “according to the campus police, the student had said she did not want officers to investigate the case.” Even in these due process-unfriendly times on college campuses, universities can’t punish students without even the semblance of an investigation.

The Times also published a chart showing that Florida State reported, on average, fewer sexual assaults than institutions of comparable size. But the university had a plausible response, noting that “83 percent of FSU’s students live off-campus, where incidents are handled by the Tallahassee Police Department and are not required to be reported as part of the university’s annual campus crime statistics.” It’s not clear why the Times didn’t include this information; its chart includes bar graphs for around 30 schools, but identifies only two of them.

What about the Winston case? At best, here the Times paints an ambivalent picture regarding FSU. It describes the incident with the second woman, and includes the following passage: “A month before the rape accusation became public, the university’s victim advocate learned that a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston, according to the prosecutor’s office. The woman did not call it rape — she did not say ‘no’ . . . The victim advocate was concerned enough about the episode to have alerted Mr. Winston’s first accuser.”

This isn’t the action of a university administration giving preferential treatment to a student accused of sexual assault; if anything, it’s the reverse, but what would be expected from an administrator ideologically sympathetic to a claim that rape allegations are always true. More broadly, the incident raises a question (basically unexplored by the Times): if universities are compelled to investigate, why aren’t they given the tools for the job, such as subpoena power? In this instance, the Times seems to chastise FSU for not conducting a more thorough inquiry that the student herself did not want.

The Times also criticizes FSU for acting “in apparent violation of federal law” by not “promptly investigat[ing] . . . the rape accusation.” A bit later in the article, Bogdanich observes, “If cases are reported, the university is obligated to investigate, regardless of what the police do.” How universities are supposed to conduct parallel investigations (reaffirmed by OCR in the SUNY settlement) to police of criminal events–and the substantial drawbacks this mandate creates–is not something that the Times cares to explore. That’s a story that wouldn’t fit into the preferred frame.

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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