Harvard Law Professors Say New Sexual Assault Policy Is One-Sided A group of 28 law professors has written an open letter criticizing the university's new sexual assault policy, citing due process concerns and saying it gives victims more rights than the accused.

Harvard Law Professors Say New Sexual Assault Policy Is One-Sided

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/356424999/356451470" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Harvard University has been under public and government pressure to change its handling of sexual assault cases, but the school's new, tougher approach has upset some faculty. Some 28 Harvard law professors have blasted the policy, saying it's too broad and violates basic fairness in the process of investigating cases. Now they're calling on Harvard to scrap it altogether. NPR's Tovia Smith has more.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Harvard announced its new policy this summer as it was under a federal investigation for being too soft on sexual assault. Now the law professors say Harvard has overreacted with rules that are, quote, "overwhelmingly stacked against the accused and starkly one-sided."

JANET HALLEY: The Harvard policy goes so far that it's pretty shocking.

SMITH: Professor Janet Halley says Harvard's process at its core is biased because it is all run by one title nine compliance office that's under pressure to show the federal government results.

HALLEY: It's the charging agent like the prosecutor. It's the investigator. They're the judge. And they're the person who hears the appeal from all those decisions. So they're not neutral. They're there to increase the number of persons held responsible.

SMITH: Halley says she's also troubled that the policy gives alleged victims many more rights and protections than the accused, and that it's too broad in what it considers sexual misconduct. Halley says Harvard relies too much on what a victim says is a violation and too little on what a, quote, "reasonable person" might say, as federal law requires.

HALLEY: And when you drop the reasonable person requirement, then you're saying, no, it's just if the person wakes up the next morning and say that was unwelcome, we'll entertain a complaint about that. And that squanders the moral authority of sexual harassment law.

SMITH: Harvard officials declined to comment, but in a statement defended their process as, quote, "neutral, fair and objective." A committee of faculty, staff and students is reviewing the policy, but inevitably, Harvard says not everyone will agree with the new approach. And while some believe the new policy goes too far, others believe it still doesn't go far enough.

That includes MaryRose Mazzola, a student activist who says she's troubled by the professor's suggestion that the policy is slanted in favor of victims.

MARYROSE MAZZOLA: That's not the feedback that we've heard at all from students, and that's not a problem that we see in the policy.

SMITH: A bigger problem, Mazzola says, is that the policy does not include a stricter definition of consent. She says all students would be better protected if Harvard had an affirmative consent policy which says that only an explicit yes means yes, instead of the old no-means-no.

MAZZOLA: And so we think that leaves it open for ambiguity, and we want there to be more clarity in the policy, specifically saying that yes means yes.

SMITH: Harvard is being watched closely by other schools. Ann Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni says she hopes other campuses will take a cue from the Harvard law professors' public protest.

ANN NEAL: And I think we owe these professors a sincere thanks for finally drawing a line in the sand.

SMITH: Neal says most schools are afraid to push back against what she calls the government shakedown that's forcing campuses to enact policies that she says go too far.

NEAL: I think these professors are properly saying that we cannot allow our institutions to be taken down an Orwellian path where the Constitution is - takes a backseat to other considerations.

SMITH: George Washington Law School professor John Banzhaff agrees the law professors' protest against Harvard's sexual assault policy could mean the pendulum will soon begin swinging back.

JOHN BANZHAFF: This can't last. I think there already is growing a public backlash against it. Now, like any pendulum, it does begin to slow down.

SMITH: What might make the difference, he says, is the rapidly growing number of students who say they were unfairly convicted by campus tribunals and are suing universities for millions in damages. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.