Are Even Progressive Journalists Catching On to the Problems With College Rape ‘Trials’?

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By Cathy Young | 1:14 pm, June 24, 2016

With the recent outcry over former Stanford athlete Brock Turner’s light jail sentence for sexual assault, championing college men accused of rape is not something likely to earn applause in progressive circles. So when the left-wing magazine Mother Jones ran a feature the other day titled, “This Georgia Lawmaker Is a Champion for College Men Accused of Rape. And He’s Winning,” you’d probably expect a scathing exposé of a powerful white man — a Republican, no doubt! — using his clout to protect male privilege. And you’d likely get the same vibe from the lead paragraph, which reveals that “Earl Ehrhart is worried about his sons” because he “has heard all about the college sexual-misconduct hearings in which young men are presumed guilty.” Must be one of those clueless sexist dads who feel, just like Turner’s father in his infamous letter to the court, that their sons shouldn’t have to pay a steep price for “20 minutes of action” if they force themselves on an unwilling woman. Right?

Or maybe not.

As the article by Madison Pauly goes on to discuss the lawsuit filed by Ehrhart and his wife against the U.S. Department of Education — which challenges federal guidelines on campus sexual assault as biased and causing “severe, unwarranted and permanent damages” to young men — something strange happens. It turns out that, while Ehrhart is indeed a conservative Republican, his concerns about the evisceration of due process for (nearly always male) students accused of sexual misconduct in college disciplinary proceedings are far from groundless. For one, as the article acknowledges, those concerns are shared by dozens of law professors — many of them women, such as Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet and Cornell’s Sheri Lynn Johnson. Moreover, the problems are very real: Under the new rules, “The evidence [has] only to show that an assault was ‘more likely than not’ to have occurred, and alleged perpetrators [have] no right to cross-examine the person who reported them.”

So is this system — the product of a federal mandate first issued in 2011 and and reconfirmed in 2013 — a bad thing? Should we applaud the Ehrharts’ complaint and other lawsuits filed by students who say they were wrongly expelled? Pauly can’t quite seem to make up her mind: She admits that the claims may have merit but goes on to warn that if one of them were to succeed, it “could undermine five years of progress fighting rape on campus.” (So kicking people out of school with barely a semblance of due process is “progress”?) Yet, by the time we get to the story of how Ehrhart came to advocate for accused male students — he had been contacted by a female constituent whose son had been expelled from Georgia Tech — the article gives a straightforward, even sympathetic account of his cause:

Digging into these cases, Ehrhart was appalled. Accused male students, he says, were not granted “any due process whatsoever” and were unable to face down student misconduct allegations with the same protections they’d have in the criminal justice system: a lawyer, a jury of peers, and the right to cross-examination. “The more I dug,” he says, “the more I uncovered a culture of allegation equals conviction.”

The result is slightly schizophrenic, almost as if trapped inside the feature article was a hit piece that never quite manages to get out. No wonder some confused Mother Jones commenters thought they were supposed to bash Ehrhart as a “good ol’ boy from Georgia [who] doesn’t want a rape case to ruin his easy money from the government because he cannot take the personal responsibility to raise his boys to not rape women.”

Meanwhile, advocates for due process in campus sexual assault cases, such as Edward Bartlett of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), saw the Mother Jones story as favorable to their side.

Cynthia Garrett, an attorney and board member of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), a group started by mothers who felt their sons had faced unfair “trials” on campus, also said in an email that the article was “largely successful” in being objective.

Another FACE board member, Joseph Roberts, has a very personal perspective on the feature on Ehrhart and his work: a few years ago, he himself was a student in Georgia on the receiving end of the system Ehrhart is battling. In April 2013, three weeks before his scheduled graduation from Savannah State University, Roberts received notice that he was being suspended and barred from campus, pending an investigation, due to an accusation of sexual harassment. He says he was never questioned, granted a hearing, or even allowed to read the report on the alleged incident (which he believes was a fabrication stemming from a vendetta over student government elections). Since Roberts was blocked from graduating, his suspension became a de facto expulsion. The effect on his life was shattering: He succumbed to severe depression and, at one point, was brought to the hospital unconscious after a suicide attempt.

Joseph Roberts
Joseph Roberts meets with a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C.

Since then, Roberts has been speaking out on the issue of accused students’ rights. (He is now employed at a Washington, DC law firm and is studying to take the law school entrance exam.) Much to his disappointment, his lawsuit against the school, in which he acted as his own attorney, was dismissed last January. But in an online article last March, Roberts wrote that he found a measure of vindication when Georgia Tech — part of the same state system as Savannah State — reinstated a male student previously suspended over a dubious allegation of sexual assault. The reversal followed Ehrhart’s efforts to bring attention to the plight of the accused. Roberts went on to write that he was “even more elated” when Ehrhart “called out the Georgia Tech administrators,” slamming them as “clueless when it comes to due process on that campus and protecting all those kids.”

Roberts, an African-American who attended one of the country’s oldest historically black schools, hardly fits the progressives’ idea of “privilege.” He is also an unlikely fan of a white conservative Southern state legislator — but he is full of praise for Ehrhart, applauding his “brave” efforts to reform the system and stand up to federal pressure. (In addition to his lawsuit, Ehrhart has also held hearings on the treatment of accused students and raise the possibility of withholding state funds from schools that violate student rights.)

“Rep. Ehrhart is an admirable lawmaker that makes me proud to be a Georgia voter,” Roberts said in an email. “He’s special because he has the political will to stand up for falsely accused students. Before Rep. Erhart’s work, students in the University System of Georgia did not have the guaranteed protections of due process rights. He has held the [Georgia] Board of Regents accountable, and now we do.”

In the past three years, there have been numerous accounts of students getting thrown out of school on transparently absurd charges of sexual assault — for instance, in cases where the allegedly “incapacitated” victim was able to text friends and discuss engaging in sexual activity. Yet the mainstream media have continued to cling to the narrative of a campus “rape culture” in which victims are blamed, shamed, and refused help by callous school administrators. Just the other day, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan urged the media to do more to cover rape and sexual assault in college campuses, using the Turner case as one example of “how pervasive the problem is — and how ineptly our institutions respond.” But stories such as Roberts’s show that overzealous response to complaints of sexual misconduct has become at least as pervasive a problem. Mother Jones’ split-personality piece on Rep. Ehrhart may be a sign that even progressive journalists are starting to grapple with this fact.