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GORMAN: No scarlet letter for sexual assault

New state legislation imperils individual rights and due process

Sexual assault has firmly grounded itself in the forefront of Virginia policy-making after the tragic murder of second-year College student Hannah Graham and the scathing remarks from the Rolling Stone article last semester. Currently, a mad scramble to pass preventative legislation has overtaken the Virginia General Assembly, with new ideas and new bills being churned out at a rapid pace. While many bills have passed both houses of the General Assembly with little contention, including mandatory reporting of sexual assault to a college’s Title IX Coordinator, one bill — for good reason — has not had quite the unanimous reception.

The bill is House Bill 1888, which requires that all public and private universities in Virginia place a “prominent notation” on the transcripts of every student who “has been suspended for, has been permanently dismissed for, or withdraws from the institution while under investigation for a violation of the institution's. . . rules. . . governing student sexual misconduct.” Indicated by the House’s hesitation to pass it, this bill extends far beyond the scope of prevention of sexual assault, delving into a hazy territory that — if the bill is passed — will have serious implications for college students across the state. Naturally, the intentions of this bill are good, but from the point of view of a current college student, HB 1888 is a clear and dangerous violation of personal liberty.

I would like to point to one word in HB 1888 that is particularly interesting: “investigation.” Investigation implies that initiative is being taken which is grounded in the assumptions or allegations of a group of individuals. But what if these allegations are wrong?

A recent study conducted on over 100 university sexual assault cases found that anywhere from 2-10 percent of sexual assault convictions are based on false accusations. Although this study does not contain any conclusions on the number of false sexual assault accusations in general, the total percentage of wrongful allegations would naturally be much greater. Thus, at any given moment in time, a significant portion of investigations regarding sexual assault is grounded in falsehood.

According to the University’s policy, practically every faculty member on Grounds is required to report accusations of sexual assault when told by a student, and the University will subsequently conduct an investigation on said allegations. This means students have the power to easily launch sexual assault investigations on one of their peers, regardless of whether the accusations are factual.

If HB 1888 were to pass, the wrongly accused would fall victim to a grave violation of their personal liberty. Without any due process of law, the accused would potentially be discriminated against by universities — many of which require a transcript to enroll — and by potential employers, who often look at students’ transcripts to view their academic virtues. Branding these students with the “scarlet letter” of sexual assault would entrap them in the cruel vice of a corrupt and unjust system, revoking their natural right to social mobility. It is not the duty of university investigators to ruin a student’s life — leave that to the courts. Across the United States, lawmakers uphold the American tenet that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, so why should university sexual assault cases be held to a different standard?

Placing that notation on students’ transcripts could potentially follow them for the rest of their lives. Every denial of a transfer request and every refusal of employment placed upon an innocent student will have a drastic impact on his future, simultaneously tarnishing the constitutional mandate of the Virginia legislative system to uphold the “certain inherent rights” of all of its citizens.

Justice should never be grasped by the wavering hands of assumption. Those accused of sexual assault should not have to pay the consequences until they are proven guilty of the crime they may have committed; otherwise, a dangerous precedent will be set for the future of legislative policy in this nation. I refuse to live in a country where an abandonment from the legal process is observed as a reputable means of tarnishing an individual’s livelihood. I refuse to stand idly by while hot-heads in positions of power advance severely impactful legislation without considering the ramifications of their actions. I refuse to forgo my human right to pursue excellence; I will not let legislators sweep the carpet of the American Dream out from under an innocent student’s feet. If justice means anything to the “good people of Virginia,” HB 1888 should not pass.

Ryan Gorman is a Viewpoint writer.

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