As we await final resolution of the first due process trial since issuance of the Dear Colleague letter in 2011 (at Brown), a few updates.
But, first, the basics of the case: the accused student was found guilty, by a 2-1 vote, on a theory that he had manipulated the female student into having oral sex. This outcome came after: (a) the Brown panel used a broader definition of consent, adopted in summer 2015, for an event that occurred in fall 2014; (b) Brown’s investigator declined to request from the accuser the full range of texts she sent to a friend—who harbored a dislike of the accused student, and who would be a key witness in the case; and (c) Brown had changed its sexual assault procedures, to create specially “trained” tribunals whose membership pool was more than 80 percent female (and whose male members seemed inclined to presume guilt).
Among the updates, the most important: Judge William Smith, a Bush II appointee, issued a preliminary injunction late last month in favor of the accused student. The decision, which Smith had telegraphed at closing arguments, allowed the student to enroll this fall. Smith’s order reiterated that he still could come down in Brown’s favor (though that seems unlikely). He also made clear in closing arguments that if he sides with the student, the victory would be at most a partial one, returning the matter to Brown to allow the university to try the student again.
Second, a campaign apparently initiated by a Brown student named Alex Volpicello has sought to pressure Smith to rule in Brown’s favor. (It is unclear if Volpicello has any relationship to the accuser.) Reflecting the newfound willingness of many elite students to trust the decisions of their university tribunals, no matter now unfair the procedures, Volpicello appeared untroubled by Brown’s lawyer suggesting at closing argument that a “power differential” (leading to coercion) might have existed between the two students—based on the fact that the two belonged to the same club (debate) and the male student was a year ahead of the accuser in school. Nor did the protesters find fault with Brown’s lawyer excusing Brown’s “training” materials on grounds that OCR required such training (but even OCR doesn’t require biased training); or citing OCR to explain away the investigator’s failure to ask for key text messages; or the impact of Brown’s “training,” which at least one panelist interpreted as requiring her to ignore exculpatory texts from the accuser sent after the alleged assault. Volpicello and associates launching their campaign through private letters/e-mails rather than through an amicus brief also suggests a desire to game the system. It seems unlikely that a life-tenured judge will be pressured in this way.
Finally, the preliminary injunction received some media coverage—both on campus, in the Brown newspaper, and nationally, through the Wall Street Journal. The Journal article, by Melissa Korn, had the tone (without ever saying so explicitly) that the accused student likely was guilty. Perhaps this was because it was informed by “the independent investigator’s report to the Title IX Council regarding [the accuser’s] complaint, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.” The report, prepared by Djuna Perkins, wasn’t part of the public record of the case; given its (apparent) conclusions, it seems unlikely that the accused student or his lawyer leaked it to the WSJ.
That said, it was odd—given the reference to the report—that the WSJ didn’t mention Judge Smith’s repeated expressions of concern with Perkins’s work from the 95-minute closing arguments. For instance, Smith deemed Perkins’s explanation as to why she hadn’t asked for texts between the accuser and a key witness (that she already knew the duo harbored “animus” for the accused student) a “non-sequitur.” (Her argument, the judge continued, “doesn’t make any sense.”) Smith also worried that the investigator had exceeded her authority—Brown’s policy says the investigator isn’t supposed to tell the panel whether she thinks the accused student is guilty, but in this case she essentially did so by pronouncing the accuser more credible. (Why didn’t that “seal the deal” in the lawsuit, the judge asked Brown’s lawyer.)
Judge Smith described the heart of the accused student’s argument as “layered,” amounting to the following: (a) the university shouldn’t have used the 2015-2016 definition of consent for an event that occurred prior to its adoption; (b) even if it was OK for Brown to use the broader definition, it should have done so openly, to give the accused student a chance to defend himself, rather than telling the panel (but not the student) that the broader definition was in play; and (c) even if Brown had so told the accused student, what he did wasn’t manipulation, so he still should have been found not guilty.
Smith’s ruling in the bench trial is pending.