If I’m the only one who was surprised and saddened to see Lindsay Nordell’s remarkably flip attitude toward basic fairness in Yale’s disciplinary process (“Harvard’s sexual assault policy shameful,” 9/19), then the apathy of Yale students toward individual rights and personal freedom must be at an all-time high. Nordell writes that “students must be cognizant of the fact that in certain situations they may be at risk — of being accused of sexual assault, and they should use their common sense to avoid those circumstances. If this impinges on what some see as their intrinsic right to a drunken hookup, so be it.”
Translation: Those falsely accused of sexual assault should blame themselves. The irony in Nordell’s blame-the-victim argument isn’t what you’d call subtle.
Nordell puts a pretty benign spin on the situation. But the rights at risk of being violated are more serious than the right to casual sex: they include the right to an attorney, to confront one’s accuser, to cross-examine witnesses, to refrain from giving self-incriminating testimony, and to testify on one’s own behalf. It’s true that Yale doesn’t legally have to incorporate these basic freedoms; but just because Yale is free to perpetrate injustice doesn’t mean it should. Yale students should expect to be afforded these fundamental protections not because our legal system provides them, but because they are inherently just restraints on prosecutorial abuse.
The problems with unfair campus disciplinary procedures aren’t merely hypothetical. A couple of years ago, a Brandeis University junior named David Schaer was accused of “unwanted sexual activity.” Schaer was informed of a judicial proceeding initiated against him six weeks after the alleged incident. At the proceeding he was forbidden to have a lawyer, and was denied the opportunity to read the testimony against him until the trial itself, preventing him from preparing any sort of cross-examination. A woman who saw the accuser a month after the alleged incident was allowed to testify that the accuser looked like a rape victim. Amid campuswide hysteria, Schaer was convicted, suspended and ordered into counseling. Vicious signs were taped to his door and petitions calling for his further suspension circulated around the Brandeis campus. Schaer’s life was essentially ruined.
The disciplinary policies of many schools require this kind of blatantly biased judicial proceeding. At Columbia, “the [accused] student does not necessarily have the right to be present to hear other witnesses and does not have the right to cross-examine witnesses or prevent the consideration of relevant evidence. In addition, although students are always free to consult with an attorney, they are not permitted to have an attorney present during a disciplinary hearing or at any appeal.” At Princeton, an accused student may not remain silent during questioning — he must give self-incriminating testimony or risk the initiation of separate disciplinary action by the administration.
And what about here at Yale? The accused here are permitted to have a legal adviser who “may counsel the student but has no right to speak to the committee or otherwise participate directly in the proceeding.” A student accused of sexual misconduct does not have the right to confront his accuser during the proceeding, nor may he cross-examine his accuser unless specifically permitted to do so by the chairman of the investigating committee.
It’s troubling to know that when accused of wrongdoing, Yale students are denied the protections rightly enjoyed by defendants in the general population. Nordell lists the maintenance of “an atmosphere of safety and support” as one of the administration’s primary responsibilities. But by stacking the deck against defendants from the beginning, Yale’s formal disciplinary policy blurs the distinction between accusation and conviction. So, how safe do you feel?
Seth Schlessinger is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.