Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) has a growing reputation for sanctioning its student protesters, but the private New York college really overstepped its authority in a recent Title IX investigation.
RPI attempted to hold a student accountable for allegedly violating their sexual misconduct policy. The kicker? He doesn't attend the school.
RPI found John Doe, a graduate student from an unaffiliated university, guilty in a Title IX complaint alleging he raped and abused an RPI student in a year-long relationship that ended in the summer of 2016.
The school applied the Title IX guidelines outlined in the Obama administration's 2011 Dear Colleague letter using a preponderance of evidence, which requires a lower burden of proof for investigators when adjudicating sexual misconduct cases.
On November 22, 2016, RPI issued John Doe a "persona non grata" letter banning him from campus. Universities—both public and private—can and have banned people from their campuses for a variety of reasons ranging from something as serious as sexual misconduct to being labeled disruptive.
RPI is limited in how they can punish a student from a different school, but they did inform the accuser that she could file a complaint with John Doe's school or local law enforcement.
John Doe sued RPI for violating his due process rights the following month, an increasingly common outcome of Title IX investigations. But on November 6 of this year, the court ruled the university did not have jurisdiction, not surprising since Doe doesn't attend RPI.
Presiding Judge Raymond J. Elliott III, contends the university would have been right to investigate, whether the incident took place on campus or at an RPI sanctioned or sponsored event, but neither were the case.
Even had the university had jurisdiction, Elliott said, "the procedure followed by RPI in this case was arbitrary, capricious, and in clear violation of [the] Petitioner's rights."
According to court documents, there was a possible language barrier between John Doe and the Title IX investigators. The university requested a meeting with John Doe without informing him that he was under investigation. It wasn't until he arrived at the meeting that he was told he was the subject of a sexual misconduct complaint. His Title IX inquisitors gave him only a few minutes to review documents pertaining to the charge before questioning him. Without counsel.
The court ordered RPI's findings overturned and the statements John Doe gave to RPI purged from the record.
"The court has spoken, and actions taken by universities without jurisdiction and in excess of their sexual misconduct policies and Title IX will not be tolerated," Brent French, one of John Doe's attorneys, told the Times Union.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has repeatedly criticized RPI for its violation of its own students' rights. RPI has earned a red light under FIRE's free speech rating system for policies threatening students' First Amendment rights. RPI also earned a F grade in FIRE's report on due process protections at universities.
FIRE described RPI's move to hold a student from a different school accountable for violating their sexual misconduct policy as an "attempt to make the Star Chamber look like a bastion of due process."
Title IX investigations, as outlined by the Obama administration, exponentially increased opportunities for universities to trample over students' civil liberties. Spanish Inquisition-style investigations and kangaroo courts have since plagued a number of universities across the country.
While the current U.S. Department of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has withdrawn the Obama era guidelines, the damage may already be done. Several universities, from the University of Colorado to Stanford University, have reaffirmed their commitment to the 2011 era Title IX guidelines.
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