The Trump administration’s push to weaken protections for victims of sexual assault on university campuses is growing lonely, with few fellow Republicans willing to defend the idea against escalating Democrat-led attacks.
Since assuming office in 2017, the administration has taken a series of steps to strengthen the rights of the accused in college-related sexual assault complaints, and to lessen the obligations of colleges to investigate.
Even among the colleges, such ideas have done little but generate protests. More than 100,000 people and groups submitted formal comments after the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, formally proposed her administration’s rules changes late last year.
At a US Senate hearing to review the matter, almost no Republicans showed up, largely leaving Democrats to press a litany of complaints.
“Defanging campus sexual assault protection”, Patty Murray, a Democratic senator from Washington, told the gathering, “is exactly what Secretary DeVos is proposing to do.”
While all victims of sexual assault are entitled to pursue a criminal complaint, federal law requires colleges to investigate allegations that their students bring to them. Such processes are often preferred by traumatised student victims as a less formal alternative to fully fledged legal procedures involving the police.
The Trump administration, however, has complained that universities’ methods can short-change the accused. In one high-profile case, a federal court last year sided with a former student of the University of Michigan who complained that the institution wrongly refused to let him cross-examine a female student who accused him of sexual misconduct.
As part of the administration’s proposed regulatory changes, those facing a campus-based sexual harassment or assault proceeding would have a clear right to a live hearing accompanied by an attorney or other adviser as well as licence to cross-examine accusers.
The administration language also would narrow the scope of which alleged behaviours would be in line for such processes, and would limit the locations at which such incidents would trigger an investigation. The plan also would require victims to alert a designated campus official of an incident for the institution to be considered legally notified of a complaint, and would push institutions to create higher legal standards for considering evidence.
Although the changes would theoretically reduce the burden on colleges, US higher education associations have criticised them, saying the administration threatens to upset a delicate existing balance in handling such sensitive complaints among their students.
The chair of the Senate panel, Republican Lamar Alexander, avoided criticising or endorsing the administration’s plan. A former US education secretary and president of the University of Tennessee, Mr Alexander instead emphasised his interest in finding common ground on the controversy.
For two hours, he listened as Democratic senators and experts in academia and sexual violence warned that the administration’s tactics could reverse years of efforts to convince sexual assault victims – often female students – to come forward and demand rights and protections.
The invited expert most sympathetic to the administration’s general outlook was Patricia Hamill, a Pennsylvania attorney specialising in campus sexual harassment cases. She warned that protecting assault victims should not mean ignoring the rights of the accused.
“I am concerned by the national polarisation on this issue”, said Ms Hamill, a partner at the Conrad O’Brien law firm, “and by the apparent assumption by many that measures to give accused people – usually men – a fair hearing are a strike against justice for women.”