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Letter to the Editor: Collegian reporting 'failed to reflect both sides' of sexual assault lawsuit

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Letter to the editor

On July 22, The Daily Collegian published an article titled “Suit claims Penn State mishandled sexual assault hearing, altered definition of consent,” detailing a lawsuit filed by John Doe against Penn State University.

The suit claims that “the university unfairly conducted its investigation into the reported assault and did not uphold [the complainant's] right to a fair, unbiased disciplinary process.”

The Collegian’s portrayal of this story was not factually or legally wrong, but failed to reflect both sides of the case and to acknowledge that it only has one side of the story.

The ways in which Collegian unfairly represented the components of this case are threefold: it chose not to provide the details of the university Title IX process which limits the reader’s ability to fully grasp the legal justification behind John Doe’s complaints against the university. It failed to acknowledge that Jane Roe’s side of the story was left out of its article, and it published unnecessary and explicit details of the sexual assault which do not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the lawsuit.

In the originally published article, the Collegian did not contextualize the Title IX process. It included details from Doe’s lawsuit, such as, “Specifically, he said his inability to call witnesses or cross examine Roe and adverse witnesses barred him from a fair process.”

After receiving several complaints from readers, the Collegian contextualized that remark, making it clearer that Title IX investigations are not a traditional court proceeding.

A university has the ability to structure its own framework under guidance from the federal government. In Penn State's defined framework, an in-person cross examination between a respondent is never allowed.

The article has been updated to read, “Specifically, he said his inability to call witnesses or cross examine Roe and adverse witnesses barred him from a fair process. The process does not currently allow the complainant or respondent to cross examine or call witnesses during a hearing.”

It is important for students to recognize this framework when reading the article. The Collegian has made a few changes to the article, but it still failed to adequately provide both John Doe and Jane Roe with equal representation.

In the Collegian’s article, the information included was only that of John Doe’s account. The lawsuit is not based on Jane Roe’s accounts and her story was mostly omitted in the public record.

It’s important for the Collegian’s readers to understand that there is another side. And it is not Jane Roe’s responsibility to come forward and share her story to maintain a sense of credibility.

I believe the duty falls on the Collegian to make it explicit to the reader that the suit reflects one side of the case. Because it failed to do so, the article implies a bias in favor of John Doe.

In a Title IX investigation, the complainant, Jane Roe, is allowed to review the story of John Doe and make comments on the record providing a different record of events. The public record included one footnote which had Jane Roe’s contradiction of the incident.

Despite the vast amount of other information pulled from the record for the article, the Collegian chose to omit this particular footnote. It purposefully made no explicit statement for the reader to understand that there are many contradictions in the incident which occurred.

Finally, the Collegian cherry-picked information from the suit that has no journalistic value.

The Collegian goes into gross detail of the reported sexual assault. Several students reached out to the Collegian with serious concerns about publishing intimate details of a sexual assault without the consent of the survivor, Jane Roe, and with no value to the article.

As the headline implies, the article should have focused on how Penn State may have failed to provide John Doe due process. The case is not about whether or not he sexually assaulted someone; it is about the failure of the university to provide due process.

The intimate details of the assault are not relevant. And I believe it is a serious violation of a student’s right to privacy to publish private details of a Title IX investigation in a student newspaper, which is read by many students.

When I brought these concerns to the Collegian, the editor-in-chief stated that “The reporter simply reported on what was included in the public documents — the Collegian did not break any laws, rules or rights to privacy.”

I did not, and do not, allege the Collegian violated any legal obligation. But where the Collegian went wrong is on a moral ground.

I believe the Collegian had every intention of informing the public about a lawsuit against Penn State regarding their Title IX processes. But the Collegian did so in a manner that was extremely degrading to survivors of sexual assault. Its article lacked a survivor-centric approach.

After reading the lawsuit against Penn State, one piece of Doe's argument that the Collegian chose to exclude from the article stood out to me.

The complaint emphasized the character of John Doe, highlighting his prestigious major, mechanical engineering, and his strong academic record.

It states that “Mr. Doe has extremely strong academic credentials including: (1) high school valedictorian; (2) high school GPA of 4.0; and (3) Penn State GPA for first year of 3.8. By any academic measure, he would be a strong transfer candidate”. The suit claims that Penn State’s delay in his Title IX investigation precludes him from transferring to another university.

Strong academics and character does not prove one innocent of sexual assault. John Doe’s academic record and character are not reasons to absolve him of Roe’s accusation.

If Penn State failed to provide him due process, that is another issue. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t harm Jane Roe. Even students who are in good academic standing and considered to be leaders on campus are not beyond reproach.

Furthermore, though the suit addresses his academic merit in the context of transferring, John Doe deserves proper due process regardless of his academic achievement or ability to transfer. Just as doing well in school doesn’t exempt you from violating others, doing poorly in school doesn’t exempt you from a fair and equal process.

I believe the conversation needs to move beyond this case. The prevalence of rape culture on campus is bigger than the question of due process in a Title IX investigation.

According to an anonymous Penn State Sexual Misconduct Survey, 27.1 percent of female and 6.5 percent of male students experience sexual assault which is defined as, “…sexual assault involving penetration or attempts at penetration (excludes non-consensual touching/kissing/fondling).” The number of women who will be sexually assaulted at Penn State is higher than the national average of college-aged women which is 23% according to RAINN.

The reality is that most students probably know someone who has been sexually assaulted on campus. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: “What are we doing about it?"


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