ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's a story that could have happened at any college campus. After a party, two students end up in bed together. What happens between them leads to a sexual assault complaint and then a university investigation. The male student is suspended. But here's where the case at the University of California, San Diego is unique. The accused male student fought back and won. A Superior Court judge ruled last week that the University did not provide him a fair trial. Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe explains how the judge came to that decision.
TERESA WATANABE: The judge specifically found that the student's right to confront and cross-examine his witness was violated. For instance, the student had submitted 32 questions of cross-examination to the accuser, and the panel hearing chair only allowed nine of those to be actually questioned or brought out in the hearing. The other thing that the judge criticized was the female accuser was allowed to testify from behind a screen. That's actually very common, and it's actually part of federal guidelines to, you know, allow that situation. But in this case, the judge said that that also impinged on the male student's right to fully confront the victim.
RATH: Now, you've written about how there are cases - a number of cases across the country where people who have been accused are fighting back. What was it about this case that let it get to this level and this judge's ruling?
WATANABE: There are over 40 male students - mostly male students - who have now filed lawsuits against universities, claiming that their rights were violated. And in some cases, judges who in the past have been very differential to universities and essentially not really meddled in their internal student conduct hearings are now feeling that they have to step forward and basically rebalance the rights of the accused and the accuser because some people believe that the pendulum has swung too far.
I know that the decision is being closely reviewed across the country by law professors. They are hearing judges becoming increasingly concerned about this. And so they felt that finally, there was a judge who came out and decided it was time to actually rule and say, wait a minute, here; we have to have a fair proceeding.
RATH: So in terms of the accused - of the rights of the accused, what is still unclear in terms of these proceedings?
WATANABE: Well, some of the issues that a lot of people are talking about have to do with, number one, the independence of the investigator and adjudicator. Some of the big issues right now are whether a student should have the right to an attorney. And you know, there's really disagreement. There's an organization of student administrators who believes that there should not be a right to an attorney because once you get attorneys in the picture, then, you know (laughter), it can really complicate university proceedings.
RATH: Has there been any response to the judge's ruling from advocates for victims of sexual assault?
WATANABE: Well, I know that I spoke with the National Women's Law Center, and they felt that it would have limited impact. They felt that this was an outlier case. When I spoke to Fatima Goss Graves, who's the vice president, she said there's a whole series of cases where judges have ruled on what constitutional protections or due process rights are required. And she said that this judge in San Diego went way over the top, that no one else has ever, you know, required that level. And she also said that while universities are struggling for fairness, she says she still hears all the time, people, mostly women, calling in, saying that they still are not getting justice.
So there's a lot of law professors who do think it will have a major impact around the nation, especially because he ruled on constitutional questions which go beyond just school procedures. But there are others like the Women's Law Center who don't believe that that will happen.
RATH: Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. Teresa, thank you so much.
WATANABE: Well, You're welcome.
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.