College campuses today are strikingly different from how they were five years ago, before the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) demanded in 2011 universities enforce Title IX laws to prevent sexual assault and harassment on campuses.
The stigma of the campus “Hunting Ground” persists, but universities have bent over backward to meet OCR demands.
They’ve implemented sexual assault task forces; programs educating students about consent; and stricter sexual misconduct policies in response to reports of abuse.
But a recent ruling by a federal appeals court suggests that universities may be overcompensating for years of failing to adequately protect alleged victims of sexual misconduct.
On Friday, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit accusing Columbia University of anti-male bias in responding to a female student’s accusation of sex assault by a male student.
The Second Circuit reversed a U.S. District Court’s previous dismissal of a male student’s suit against Columbia (the school suspended him for a year in 2013 for “sexual assault: nonconsensual intercourse”), permitting him to proceed with his claim that university officials violated Title IX, which bars gender discrimination by schools receiving federal funds.
“From the outset, Columbia University manipulated this investigation and engaged in gender bias against the accused, ignoring evidence and conflicting accounts presented by witnesses,” Andrew Miltenberg, the plaintiff’s attorney, said in a statement to The Daily Beast, adding that the university was “motivated, in part, by public pressure.”
Known only as John Doe, Miltenberg’s client claimed that Columbia did not inform him of his rights during proceedings and didn’t interview multiple witnesses whom he suggested could confirm that he didn’t force himself on the female student.
Columbia said they didn’t interview those witnesses because John Doe was found guilty of having “coercively pressured” the female student to have sex, rather than forcing himself on her. But the court was not convinced by Columbia’s defense.
“[I]t is entirely plausible that the University’s decision-makers and its investigator were motivated to favor the accusing female over the accused male, so as to protect themselves and the University from accusations that they had failed to protect female students from sexual assault,” wrote Judge Pierre N. Leval.
Since the OCR’s 2011 demand to universities, there have been 170 cases in district courts of male students suing universities for gender-based discrimination under Title IX law.
Many of these district courts—including in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont—have arrived at the same ruling the Second Circuit did on Friday, at which point universities are more likely to settle.
“If you’re a university and you get sued, the very first thing you’ll try to do is get the case thrown out,” said Erin Buzuvis, a professor at Western New England School of Law and founder of the Title IX blog. “If the plaintiff is able to survive that preliminary decision, then universities have to decide whether they want to engage in the hassle of litigation or just pay that person to go away.”
But where many male students have lost these cases or reached settlements in the past, their attorneys are beginning to find ways to get to the second round of legal proceedings.
“What we’ve seen in recent years is that these guys are starting to win,” said Brett Sokolaw, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators. “They’re starting to prove that their universities mistreated them in an overreaction to OCR guidance or a politically correct desire to side with the victim.”
To the extent that cases citing gender discrimination are barometers of colleges being biased in one direction, these Title IX lawsuits filed by male students accused of sexual assault suggest that administrations may have swung too far.
“For 20 years universities leaned against victims,” said Sokolaw. “The problem is that they’re leaning at all, and that necessitates a correction to the system. It’s my job to help the field get it right and address sexual misconduct on campuses. These vulnerabilities in the system are bad for victims [of sexual misconduct].”
Wendy Murphy, a victims’ rights attorney who has sued under Title IX, applauded the Second District’s ruling as a good thing for victims of sexual assault.
“When federal courts treat sex-based violence and discrimination matters as the civil rights claims that they are, all women benefit because the class-based lens matters much more than the specifics of any single litigation,” Murphy wrote in an email, adding: “‘No more hierarchies’ is the only agenda for me.”
A spokesperson from Columbia University said the school does not comment on ongoing litigation.