Nearly 60 Democratic legislators tweeted criticism of Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ speech, which advocated a fairer approach and more respect for due process in campus Title IX tribunals. The preferred adjectives included “terrible,” “despicable,” “insulting, “perverse,” “appalling,” “disgraceful,” “shameful,” and “dangerous. No congressional Democrat, in any way, praised her remarks, which insisted on the rights of both accusers and accused.
Most of this commentary showed little or no awareness of what goes on in these hearings and how unfair many are to the males involved. Former Vice President Joe Biden went even further than most, telling accusers’ rights activists that they needed to continue to speak up, offering an “analogy” to critics of the “Nazis marching” in Virginia: “When we’re silent, we give a rationale, an excuse to people who are the very people we’ve been fighting all along.”
Twenty-nine Democratic or Democratic-affiliated senators (three-fifths of the Senate Democratic caucus) followed this activity with a letter to DeVos. The senators demanded that the Secretary keep in place the Dear Colleague letter, the symbol of Obama-era unfairness, even as their document didn’t mention the presumption of innocence, due process, or fairness. Their letter’s only mention of “justice” came in a section that spoke of “survivors [emphasis added] in obtaining justice.” It seems, alas, that even-handed justice is no longer a goal for congressional Democrats.
Accusers’ Rights Activists
If Democratic legislators chose vitriolic, over-the-top rhetoric to respond to DeVos, the preferred approach of the accusers’ rights movement was an affirmative attempt to mislead. The pattern began during DeVos’ speech itself; as the Secretary recounted cases of students being denied due process, Know Your IX co-founder Alexandra Brodksy tweeted that these abuses of fairness all somehow violated the Dear Colleague letter. It should go without saying that in the 180 or so due process lawsuits, Know Your IX has never filed an amicus brief making such a point. That’s no surprise coming from an organization whose other co-founder, Dana Bolger, had celebrated perhaps the single most unjust of any of the post-Dear Colleague campus cases, the Amherst one.
In an article saying that DeVos’ speech was “profoundly stupid,” Know Your IX Sejal Singh fantastically claimed that the Dear Colleague letter “affords students accused of sexual violence with more procedural rights than . . . the Due Process Clause of the Constitution otherwise provides students in campus discipline.” (Her citations for this remarkable assertion were two pieces by Know Your IX’s Brodsky.) Singh’s op-ed would have come as news to judges in the recent Penn State and Miami decisions, both of whom cited the Due Process Clause in cases dealing with a refusal to provide exculpatory evidence to the tribunal (not mentioned in the Dear Colleague letter at all) and refusal to allow cross-examination (discouraged by the Dear Colleague letter). It’s hard to know whether Singh and her Know Your IX colleagues are being deliberately misleading, or are simply ignorant of an issue with which they have been involved for several years.
Higher-Ed Status Quo
The third group of DeVos critics came from within the higher-ed establishment itself. Wesleyan president Michael Roth, for instance, tweeted, “We must #StopDeVos from pushing us back 2 an era when assault and harassment were acceptable parts of campus culture.” (He was responding, it’s worth noting, to a speech organized around a theme that due process served all sides.) Roth recalled for the New York Times “‘the times when men, with impunity, would throw their weight around,’ sexually harassing and assaulting women . . . ‘Changing that culture over the last decade, as the Obama administration tried to do, was an enormous contribution.’” The Obama guidance was issued four years after Roth took charge at Wesleyan. There’s no evidence he informed prospective parents of the extraordinarily dangerous situation that purportedly existed on his campus between 2007 and 2011.
Then there was a Chronicle piece (celebrated by accusers’ rights activists) by higher-ed lawyer Scott Schneider, former associate general counsel at Tulane who provides what he describes as “expert witness testimony on matters dealing with institutional response to allegations of sexual misconduct and designs and delivers training programs on a host of education issues, including Title IX compliance obligations.”
As Scott Greenfield has pointed out, Schneider left the erroneous impression that 1997 OCR guidance and the Supreme Court adopted the same “definition” of sexual harassment, for a period of “almost 20 years.” The 1997 OCR guidance speaks of sexual harassment that is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the education program.” By contrast, the Supreme Court, in 1999, used the following formulation: “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience.” (The emphasis in each instance is added to show the differences between the two “definitions,” with the Supreme Court’s notably tighter than the OCR guidance Schneider elected to quote.) Perhaps Schneider simply assumed (likely correctly) that most Chronicle readers wouldn’t bother checking on the precise wording of Davis to note the differences between it and the 1997 OCR guidance he quoted.
For the most part, Schneider’s approach to DeVos’ speech was to interpret the Secretary’s words divorced from the context of the six years since the Dear Colleague letter. After, for instance, quoting DeVos’ concerns that witnesses might not be cross-examined and evidence might not be presented to both parties, Schneider asserted, “In its 2014 ‘Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence,’ the department’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, also noted that ‘in all cases, a school’s Title IX investigation must be adequate, reliable, impartial, and prompt, and include the opportunity for both parties to present witnesses and other evidence.’”
There have been dozens of lawsuits since the issuance of the Dear Colleague letter dealing with these themes. Moreover, the whole thrust of the single-investigator model is to eliminate any form of cross-examination and minimize the amount of evidence that an accused student sees. During her nearly four years running OCR, Catherine Lhamon ignored the lawsuits as the White House spoke positively of the single-investigator model. Lhamon refused to meet with groups advocating for accused students (SAVE and FACE); she initially refused (in writing) to even meet with FIRE. The Obama administration spent four years in one-sided publicity portraying the nation’s college campuses as awash in violent crime, with Lhamon publicly threatening to pull funds if they didn’t do enough. And it’s Schneider’s argument that pulling out a line OCR showed no interest in enforcing—while ignoring what OCR actually did during the Lhamon years—showed that DeVos had misstated the guidance?
Similarly, in a passage quoted by Greenfield, Schneider chastised DeVos for saying that “even lawyers” found Obama-era guidance “confusing” to navigate. The expert witness would have none of it: “In the event that there was any confusion about that guidance,” he reasoned, the 2014 “Questions and Answers” document provided the needed “straightforward” answers.
Consider just one sentence from the 46-page 2014 guidance: “Of course, a school should ensure that steps to accord any due process rights do not restrict or unnecessarily delay the protections provided by Title IX to the complainant.” Is that sentence “confusing”—or, as Schneider claimed, “straightforward”? Given that multiple courts (not to mention myriad filings from lawyers on both sides of the issue) have come to dramatically differing conclusions on due process and Title IX tribunals, it does seem as if some lawyers—that is, federal judges—don’t consider the guidance to be “straightforward.”
But Schneider’s article served a purpose—not necessarily persuading people, but muddying the waters enough for defenders of the status quo to present a tenable claim that DeVos was wrong. After all, they can say, the Chronicle published it.