National Review has retracted an article it ran last week. The piece claimed the University of Missouri had disciplined a male student, Jeremy Rowles, for seeking a date with a significantly smaller female student, Annalise Breaux. In the university's view, Rowle's size meant that he "was perceived as having power over her," wrote NR.
As many complained, the article omitted details that complicated the picture. Rowles is currently suing Mizzou for wrongfully suspending him; according to his own version of events, he had taken increasingly elaborate steps to woo Breaux, even though she had clearly communicated her lack of interest. Eventually, she complained to her supervisors at the Mizzou Rec Center that his written declaration of love had made her feel uncomfortable. This complaint was referred to the university's Title IX office, which handles sexual misconduct, and administrators eventually found Rowles guilty of sexual harassment and stalking.
NR's post has been criticized by other conservative news sites: The Daily Caller brands it "fake news," and The Daily Wire says the issues at stake had been misrepresented. NR sensibly withdrew the report, noting that "the male student had made repeated, unwelcome advances toward the female student and was found in violation of Title IX for stalking her."
BuzzFeed News' Tyler Kingkade, who reports on campus sexual misconduct issues, describes the mistake as a "classic example of how inaccurate some of the Title IX coverage is when done by people who don't bother doing their own reporting" and called out other outlets for doing the same, including The Daily Mail and The Daily Wire.
But the Daily Wire piece didn't claim that Rowles' size was the reason he got kicked off campus. Reporter Ashe Schow merely noted that a Mizzou administrator, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cathy Scroggs, had claimed Rowles' "power" over Breaux could perhaps be due in part to his stature. This detail comes from Rowles' recent motion for summary judgment, which cites remarks made by Mizzou administrators in a deposition. According to the motion, Scroggs said the following:
Interviewer: The allegations against Jeremy Rowles, do you believe that they've satisfied subsection 1 of sexual harassment?
Scroggs: I think he was perceived as having power over her.
Interviewer: And what was the nature of his power over her? Was it just his size?
Scroggs: His physical size.
Interviewer: OK. So, this part 1 doesn't require him to be a teacher. When it says person of authority, it doesn't mean, like, teacher or boss?
Scroggs: Well, I suppose it could; but in this case, no, I didn't interpret it that way.
The "part 1" referred to above is the university's sexual harassment policy, which defines sexual harassment in part as "unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual activity by a person or persons in a position of power or authority to another person." It would seem obvious, then, that Scroggs did believe Rowles's size could give him power over her. This strikes me as notable: As far as I am aware, power imbalance typically refers to the nature of a relationship—teacher and student, for instance—rather than a person's intimidating size.
Mizzou's policy also defines sexual harassment as "other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when…such conduct creates a hostile environment by being sufficiently severe or pervasive and objectively offensive that it interferes with, limits or denies the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from education programs or activities or employment access, benefits, or opportunities." (Emphasis mine.) This was the basis upon which Rowles was found guilty of sexual harassment, according to his own version of events.
Rowles "violated the sexual harassment policy by engaging in unwelcome verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature towards [Breaux] and that…created a hostile environment by being sufficiently pervasive that it interfered with her ability to do her job," wrote Ellen Eardley, the administrator who initially found Rowles responsible.
But according to the deposition, Eardley and Scroggs have somewhat different understandings of this definition. This matters, since Scroggs reviewed Rowles' appeal of Eardley's initial decision and reached the same result, though she reduced his suspension from four years to two. Eardley believed that hostile environment harassment needed to satisfy one of two criteria: 1) severe, or 2) pervasive and objectively offensive. But in Scroggs' view, harassment needed to satisfy only one of the following three criteria: 1) severe, 2) pervasive, or 3) objectively offensive. This is an important difference: If Rowles' conduct was pervasive—a point he essentially conceded, as he had made overtures more than once—but not severe or objectively offensive, he would be guilty under Scroggs' definition, but not guilty under Eardley's.
Rowles was also found responsible for stalking. For what it's worth, the university defines stalking as "following or engaging in a course or conduct on the basis of sex with no legitimate purpose that puts another person reasonably in fear for his or her safety or would cause a reasonable person under the circumstances to be frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed." Rowles disputes that his actions meet this definition, because Breaux did not claim he had done any of these things, but rather that he made her "uncomfortable." Whether a reasonable person would have found his behavior frightening, intimidating, or distressing is beyond the scope of this post, since the document under review here—Rowles' motion—presents the facts in the light most favorable to Rowles.
Based on Rowles' own characterization of what happened, I do not blame Breaux for seeking help. But when the people with the authority to make life-altering judgments like banning a student from campus don't have clear and consistent definitions for terms like power imbalance, hostile environment, and stalking, we should be concerned that such decisions are being made fairly. That holds true even if the initial outrage-bait headline was wrong.