Column: 'Safe,' 'Fair' Campus Acts threaten sexual assault survivors

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, listens as Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, left, R-Calif. speaks during a House Rules full committee meeting on the Iran nuclear program deal in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. Sessions co-sponsored the Fair Campus Act, which was introduced in Congress in late July. (Molly Riley/AP)

Introduced over summer months this year, two new bills in a congressional house committee are gaining traction, but their components present a serious threat to survivors of sexual assault. One bill seeks to bar universities from punishing accused rapists unless survivors agree to report the incident to law enforcement.

Presented with the mission to increase due process for accused rapists, the Safe Campus Act and the Fair Campus Act both miss the target – by a long shot. The Safe Campus Act has been receiving a majority of the attention and protest between the two, but many students, sexual assault survivors, higher education officials and advocacy organizations have come out against both bills for a variety of reasons.

The Safe Campus Act, effectively, would prohibit universities from punishing accused rapists unless the survivor agrees to report the incident to law enforcement concurrently. According to research funded by the Department of Justice, many students choose not to pursue formal action in response to incidents of sexual assault for personal reasons, and even when reported to law enforcement, only between 8 and 37 percent of sexual assault cases lead to prosecution, and just 3 to 18 percent of sexual assaults lead to conviction. 

Lawyers take cases they think they can win, and without evidence, rape survivors regrettably face a judgmental, slut-shaming, racist and classist structure that many times can’t serve them. Many tenets of modern crisis counseling suggest the best course of action in response to incidents of sexual violence is to allow survivors to make their own decisions, and especially to not restrict their options.

While the authors of the bill say the legislation aims to increase due process for accused rapists, one has to wonder why sexual assault is the only crime they seek to raise due process concerns for, especially considering the way in which they seek to do it. No aspects of the proposed bills target crimes such as theft, physical assault, or the sale or use of drugs.

The Fair Campus Act, while not forcing survivors to report to police like the Safe Campus Act, would prohibit universities from taking permanent action against accused rapists in any way until after a formal hearing. Formal hearings under the Fair Campus Act, however, would require two weeks written notice with a statement of all details and evidence, as well as the permittance of an attorney at the cost of the individual parties. It is important to note that, while talking about the need for fairness and due process, the bill creates no right to a paid attorney for survivors presenting accusations.

Proponents of the bills, and others who feel their rights are under attack by movements to protect rape survivors, argue that the criminal justice system and long, due process-based hearings are the only appropriate way to handle incidents of sexual violence. However, the ability for a university to act swiftly to support the needs of survivors in a secure way is an absolutely essential protection, not an overreach.

"The campus process and criminal process are two separate and distinct processes with different purposes and goals," Monika Johnson-Hostler, President of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence told the Huffington Post. On the Safe Campus Act and its prescribed requirement to contact law enforcement, Hostler continued, "Campuses should be able to continue their process regardless of the student's decision to move forward with a police report."

Especially in the case of the Safe Campus Act, the requirement of survivors to report concurrently to the police and the university is an overreach that will effectively scare more victims out of reporting at all. Requiring long, courtroom style hearings even without law enforcement would increase and perpetuate the same kind of intimidation that causes many sexual assaults to remain unreported.

Universities are required under the Clery Act to inform survivors of their right to report to police if they desire, but also of their right not to. Regardless of that decision, a university must be able to issue the penalties needed to accommodate victims – and survivors shouldn’t bear the burden of making those accommodations themselves.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.