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Content warning: This article describes sexual violence. 

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The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Saifullah Khan — who was originally a member of the class of 2016 — could sue the female peer whom he allegedly raped for defamation. 

The Court sent the case to a lower court, opening up the possibility for sexual assault victims to be subject to similar defamation lawsuits. Following this decision, several lawyers and Title IX advocates spoke with the News about the potential implications of the case. 

Khan’s case centers around his 2018 hearing with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct at Yale, which was conducted after a criminal court found him not guilty of sexual assault in the months before. Despite the previous ruling, the UWC found Khan “responsible” for sexual assault and expelled him in 2019.

In Dec. 2019, Khan filed a lawsuit against Yale for $110 million over claims of breach of contract, breach of privacy, emotional distress and reputational harm.

In the lawsuit, Khan alleges that the Yale UWC’s proceedings lacked procedural safeguards, allowing him to sue for defamation. These safeguards are necessary for the court to deem the such hearings as “quasi-judicial” — a distinction, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in June, the UWC’s lacked. Last week’s decision now allows the case to move to the discovery phase and sets a precedent allowing sexual assault victims to be sued for defamation. 

 “I do think the CT Supreme Court’s decision in June certainly was seen as a loss because it opens complainants in certain Title IX proceedings up to potentially getting sued for defamation for making their complaints,” Naomi Shatz LAW ’08, a lawyer whose practice focuses on Title IX cases on college campuses, wrote in an email to the News.

Shatz told the News when the state Supreme Court first examined the case, they considered Yale’s 2018 Title IX procedures, the process Khan went through, which are no longer in use. In 2020, former President Donald Trump introduced new federal Title IX regulations, mandating schools to offer stronger procedural safeguards during Title IX proceedings — the measures Khan argues Yale’s UWC proceedings lacked.

She said because of those changes to Title IX regulations, it is not clear whether the state Supreme Court would hold in any future cases similar to Khan’s that Yale’s current Title IX processes are quasi-judicial, given that they must currently follow Trump’s regulations.  

However, these Title IX policies are expected to change in the 2024-2025 school year under President Joe Biden.

“I don’t think this ruling sets a new precedent,” Shatz told the News. “It just applies the new law that the CT Supreme Court announced in June.”

Shatz also said that while a substantive ruling from the 2nd Circuit can carry substantial weight, a procedural order like the Khan ruling that is deciding on an issue related to a state law is “not going to make many waves.”

Katherine Baker, a legal expert on campus sexual assault cases and a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, told the News that Khan is not likely to “win” much in the case. 

She said that Doe will most likely not have to pay anything unless Khan can prove she acted with malicious intent when speaking in the UWC proceedings. Baker said that this would be “exceedingly difficult” for him to prove. 

“If (and it is a big “if”) there is any legitimate problem in the process that Mr. Khan was afforded by the non-criminal University adjudication procedure, it was the fault of the University, not Ms. Doe,” Baker wrote to the News. “She had nothing to do with establishing the procedures.” 

This potential outcome, she added, leads to a bigger question of whether the money Khan has spent suing Doe is part of a quest for revenge rather than an effort to clear his name.

When asked to respond to this claim, Khan compared “false accusers” to the terrorist group Hamas, saying that such false allegations equate to “using Yale as a shield.”  

Emma Grasso Levine, the Title IX policy and program manager at Advocates for Youth, told the News that defamation lawsuits like Khan’s have been increasing in recent years. She also said that rulings similar to those made in the Khan case so far raise concerns that it might silence survivors.

“Something that we’ve been tracking in terms of the impact of this case is just concerns around the potential silencing effect that this may have on student survivors,” Grasso Levine said. “Especially as we are increasingly seeing these defamation lawsuits become a roadmap for folks who perpetuate abuse against survivors to use to further silence them or further cause harm to them.” 

According to a 2021 report by advocacy organization, Know Your IX, 10 percent of sexual assault survivors who responded to the organization’s survey reported that they experienced retaliatory Title IX cross-filings, and more than one in five of those survivors reported that they were threatened with a defamation suit.

Grasso Levine also said that a “concerning” part of the Khan case is its potential to undermine future protections for accusers in Title IX proceedings, which she said could lead to fewer survivors reporting their cases. 

“From our view, in order for survivors to feel safe utilizing Title IX proceedings and resources, we want to make sure that they feel safe speaking out in those spaces and sharing authentically what has happened to them,” Grasso Levine said. 

On Oct. 25, Khan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “the Second Circuit has given us the gift of justice,” and that “[i]n the spirit of truth, ‘Jane Doe’ will soon have a name.”

In 1972, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Update, Nov. 3: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the dates on the trial.

Tristan Hernandez is the 147th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. He previously served as a copy editor and covered student policy & affairs and student life for the University desk. Originally from Austin, Texas, he is a junior in Pierson College majoring in political science.
Adam Walker is the University Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale Law School for the University desk. Originally from Long Island, New York, he is a rising junior in Branford College double majoring in Economics and American Studies.