Roughly 120 students gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Tuesday evening to debate an issue that has captivated not only Yale’s campus but campuses across the country: Who should be adjudicating cases of sexual misconduct?
The discussion was hosted by the Yale Political Union and co-sponsored by Yale’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. It opened with a speech by Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, an organization dedicated to using lawsuits to challenge gender discrimination. Tracy spoke against the resolution of the night, which was that rape cases should be left to the criminal justice system.
“Why are so many students looking to campus disciplinary proceedings to enforce Title IX mandates, instead of the criminal justice system?” Tracy said. “It suggests they are turning [there] because they are reluctant to participate in criminal justice processes where they fear they will not be believed and justice will not be served.”
Tracy’s argument centered on the history of rape law. Rape law originated to protect property, not people, Tracy said, with a woman’s chastity defined as her family’s property. As such, rape law was designed with men’s rights in mind — a problem she said persists today, as criminal courts use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence.
By holding rape claims to such a high standard of proof, she said, society implicitly states that women who claim to be victims of sexual assault are probably lying. The lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in civil cases gives both parties equal footing, she added.
She also criticized the criminal justice system’s mishandlings of women’s rape claims, citing cases from Cleveland to Milwaukee to Philadelphia of prosecutors rejecting complaints that later turned out to be legitimate.
Tracy acknowledged that campus adjudication systems are imperfect as well, but emphasized the more diverse array of tools at universities’ disposal to address sexual misconduct — for example, changing students’ housing or class arrangements, or instituting prevention and education programs.
Tracy’s speech was followed by several student speakers from different parties, who advocated both for and against the resolution.
Isaac Cohen ’16, a member of the Conservative Party, delivered a rebuttal. Cohen, who wrote a February editorial for the News titled “Leave rape to courts,” reiterated his argument to the audience, advocating for judicial rather than university adjudication of rape cases.
In particular, Cohen critiqued universities for eliminating cross-examination — a key feature of the judicial process — from their own adjudication procedures. This is one of the many reasons that complaints of sexual assault would be better left to the legal system, he said.
“Why has cross-examination been discarded? The key word is trauma,” he said. “[Trauma] seems to have become the catch-all excuse for abdication of duty … [including] the victim’s duty to seek real justice in the real criminal justice system, not merely for herself but for future victims [as well].”
Cohen added that if society were to relieve women of their obligation to report rape to the police, it would be accepting that women are weaker than men. His concluding remarks were quickly drowned out by applause from the right and laughter and hissing from the left.
“Women today are not so feeble as feminists would have us believe, and I think they can handle real justice,” he said.
Speakers from both sides of the aisle followed. Isadora Milanez ’18, from the Party of the Left, emphasized Tracy’s argument that universities are obligated to preserve an equal learning environment for both men and women, and are equipped to do so through educational measures that the criminal justice system cannot implement. She, too, acknowledged that university adjudicative bodies often make mistakes, but said the recent media attention to the issue provides a strong incentive for them to improve.
Jenna McGuire ’18, from the Party of the Right, responded that universities will never be able to do an adequate job of addressing campus sexual assault, because the strongest punishment they can administer is expulsion — a punishment that does nothing to take dangerous perpetrators off the streets, she said.
Seven more student speakers followed.
Speaker of the YPU Ugonna Eze ’16, who moderated the discussion, said after the event that the conversation had been very productive. Both sides seemed to recognize the “heinous” nature of the crime in question, he said, and arguments seemed more rooted in political interpretations than disagreements about the severity of the problem.
Farheen Maqbool ’17, secretary of the Conservative Party, said the topic is too difficult to be resolved in such a politically charged environment.
“I think this is a very hard topic, and I don’t know that this is the most productive forum to discuss it,” she said. “The hissing and the pounding just add a very emotional atmosphere, and I think [the issue is] much too nuanced to be discussed in affirmative and negative speeches.”
Tracy became executive director of the Women’s Law Project in 1990.
Correction: April 15
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jenna McGuire ’18 is a member of the Conservative Party. In fact, she is a member of the Party of the Right.