Innocent until the media chimes in

In Season Two of Dave Chappelle’s “Chappelle’s Show,” one skit begins with him in bed with a woman. It narrates: “You’ve just met that special someone, and you’re letting your desire for each other take you to incredible heights. But these days, you can never be too sure whether or not they’re going to dispute whether the sex was consensual or not.” Dave stops. “Wait a minute,” he says, “Before we go any further…” and he reaches for a sheet of a paper and a pen. “It’s just a document indicating that you’re a willing participant in this sexual experience,” he tells her. The narrating voice furthers, “The Love Contract … Because you’d hate to catch a beef for something you know you didn’t do.”

As ridiculous as the idea sounds, it is a sad fact that such a document could, in theory, be widely popular in our country. Although this comedy sketch takes a rather flippant tone, the issue of rape could not be a graver topic. Thanks to greater cultural awareness and openness, as well as a better, broader definition of what constitutes sexual assault, rape victims are more willing to come forward to seek personal help and press charges. One of the most important influences on this openness has been the establishment of a standard in the media that bars ever mentioning a rape victim’s name, for fear that the stigma would have a chilling effect on a victim’s willingness to come forward.

While such a standard, and the protection it affords, are indispensable to a society that wishes to bring the issue of sexual assault out into the open, it is accompanied by another standard that has no socially positive impact, unfairly hurts the individual affected by it and provides the basis for abuse of the law. I am speaking, of course, of the precedent in media that makes it acceptable — even warranted — to publish the name and (in the case of News) photograph of a person charged with rape.

This practice has no discernible social benefit. If one is concerned with making the public aware, the facts of the case can be entirely reported while maintaining the anonymity of the person charged. To those who would argue that putting a name (and face) on the perpetrator makes the incident more real, and therefore harder for people to dismiss as obscure and unrelated to their lives, I would argue that the marginal impact this offers is incomparable to the damage it does to the person who instantly becomes known by all as an alleged rapist. Suffice it to say that, considering the issue of public awareness, the most important thing to be done is to report the case.

If the best we can say is that, in an abstract sense, giving the accused an actual identity helps to emphasize the realness of the incident, then we should consider what it does to the person accused. Whispers, finger-pointing, looks of disgust, fear, judgment, not to mention knowing that every single person you have to see on a daily basis is always wondering, never entirely dismisses the idea, that you could be a rapist (even if you end up being legally exonerated). For the guilty, this might be a fitting, though admittedly extra-legal and therefore arbitrary form of extra punishment. For the innocent, it is an undeniably undeserved and unjust punishment. And in the case of an isolated, academic bubble like the Yale campus, the extent of the damage to a person’s reputation is tenfold. Yet, the media is a not a court of law. It does not have the capacity to determine guilt or innocence, so why does it have the power to impose an arbitrary punishment?

The progress and openness of modern society has — thankfully — made the stigma of being charged with rape far worse than the stigma of being a victim of it. Yet, because the latter is protected from stigmatization, and the former is not, we have set the precedent for abuse of the law. While it is not politically correct to state it, there can be no doubting the fact that, if the mere accusation of rape carries with it a punishment in and of itself (defamation and social ostracization), and if the accuser is in no way put into the public spotlight, then anyone who wishes to ruin another person’s life can accuse him (or her) of sexual assault. It is irrelevant that this kind of abuse of the law is rare — the very possibility of it happening demands that those charged with rape be protected from deliberate public exposure.

There is an obligation, to be sure, for the media to provide the public with information. Yet the information it provides is not intrinsically valuable; it has a social function. Given that reporting the name of a person charged with rape violates that person’s right to a fair trial and punishment, and given that it does nothing to further the socially informative purpose of the story, it is irresponsible and wrong for a publication, especially a school publication, to publish that information.



William Palmer is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

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