Civil Liberties

DC Legislators Want to Brand Accused Students as Rapists—Even if They're Never Convicted

The "Scarlet Letter" approach



Is there anything more terrifying than an outraged government official who wants to do something about a moral issue? Some members of the D.C. city council would like to force universities to take a "Scarlet Letter" (WaPost's phrasing) approach with students accused of sexual assault, permanently branding them as rapists—even if they are never convicted by adjudicators.

This is the brilliant idea of Councilwoman Anita Bonds, a Democrat:

Newly proposed D.C. legislation would require colleges to put a permanent and prominent notation on the academic transcripts of students who are convicted of sexual assault or who try to withdraw from school while under investigation for sexual misconduct — a "Scarlet Letter" that would follow them to new schools and graduate programs or into the workforce.

Council member Anita Bonds's proposal Tuesday — which comes as the nation is paying more attention to the widespread problem of college sexual assault — immediately drew praise from several colleagues for its bold approach to attacking the issue. But it also caught officials at the city's colleges and universities off guard, proposing what is certain to be a controversial way of permanently punishing those accused of assaults.

The "Scarlet Letter" plan isn't exactly new; lawmakers in other jurisdictions have proposed similar policies. But the idea that this should apply to students who are never found guilty—because they withdrew before the investigation was completed—is less common, and much more disturbing.

I can understand the desire to protect students at other universities from rapists. But the best way to do that is put the rapists in jail, not mark their transcripts.

After all, the campus judiciary hearing is often farcical. When an accused student is denied his due process rights, access to a lawyer, and is convicted under a preponderance of the evidence standard, is it really fair to mark him forever? If he withdraws from the college to avoid such a miscarriage of justice, should legislatures really make that public knowledge for future employers?

Undergirding Bonds' desire to pass this legislation is a reliance on scary statistics about campus sexual assault:

Bonds (D-At Large), who is also head of the Democratic Party in the District, cited a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found that 20?percent of women who attended college within the past four years had an unwanted sexual experience while in school there.

 "I hear these statistics, and I am outraged as many in the community are," she said. Three council members joined Bonds in introducing the measure.

Outrage—some, though not all of it, misplaced—is what comes of surveying students about their sexual activities and making the assumption that they are all victims, even when they don't see themselves that way.