Hasty judgments hazardous in response to sexual assault

a/Opinion by

Three members of a varsity sports team are accused of sexual assault by a woman who does not attend their university. The story becomes public and, predictably, outrage ensues.  Groups on campus pressure the coach to discipline the players. The suspects are charged, and a trial is pending—but observers have no time for that. Members of the school community publish material that implies that the accused are guilty. Some even suggest that guilt is certain, due to the systematic inequalities that exist in society, and that in cases like this, we really ought not presume innocence.

I know what you’re thinking—this sounds familiar. That the male athletes I’m talking about are three former McGill football players; that the pressure came in the form of anger over the coach not reporting the charges to the McGill administration; that the observers who have no time for legal proceedings are the members of the Union for Gender Empowerment, who published a petition demanding “action against these perpetrators.” You probably think that those suggesting the presumption of innocence should not apply include writers like Lily Hoffman,  who  wrote in the Nov. 18 issue of the Daily.

All of those assumptions, however, would be wrong.

The individuals I’m talking about are three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a party in 2006. The pressure was on the coach for not reporting a lewd email. The material published that assumes guilt was the infamous letter by the Group of 88, faculty members who rushed to condemn the players. Notably, no law professors were among them. The person who believed guilt to be a certainty, nevermind that pesky presumption of innocence, was African Studies professor Wahneema Lubiano, who believed the accused to be “almost perfect offenders.”

It must have been awkward, then, when the charges were dropped, the men declared innocent by the State Attorney General himself, and the prosecutor of the case disbarred. Oops.

Stories like this one make us grateful for civil liberties and for due process.

And yet the argument made so far at McGill, in light of the allegations against the three athletes, suggest that process is for other crimes.

Campus groups and activists need to rethink this tactic of presuming guilt. First, because it’s a pretty dubious idea that making the survivor of sexual assault also the judge, jury, and executioner will make reporting easier. Removing the protections to the accused does not solve the problems that make accusers vulnerable.

But even if you disagree with that, there is another reason why we ought to abandon the presumption of guilt for sexual assault cases. Trying to take away basic civil liberties is a battle that cannot be won. One glance at the reaction to the Daily article will tell you this. People are rather fond of the presumption of innocence.

Referring to the suspects as perpetrators and calling for their heads without even lip service to due process concerns many who value our judicial system. Following that up by explicitly attacking a fundamental right is downright alarming. Doing so takes potential allies and turns them into opponents by creating a false dichotomy: a choice between the status quo and a world without the presumption of innocence.

It is impossible to convince students that they should have no recourse, and no rights, as soon as they are accused by anybody of sexual assault. But they can be convinced of the importance of combating rape culture, of the importance of consent, and of creating a safe space for survivors. That’s the battle that can be won, and the battle that must be fought.

Ben Reedijk is an Arts Representative to the Students’ Society of McGill University. The views presented here are his alone.