What happens when the factual case for expansive new federal legislation falls apart? Thanks to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), the answer is now clear: So long as the legislation advances a leftist narrative and helps leftist constituencies, you press on anyway, and bask in the continued, thunderous applause of media allies. In May, 2014, Senator Gillibrand — who’d already achieved considerable fame for her relentless efforts to publicize an alleged epidemic of sexual assault in the military — aimed both barrels at college campuses, making the case that America’s colleges and universities were uniquely dangerous for young women, and something had to be done.
In a Time op-ed, she made two alarming claims, claims that — if true — would mean that the plight of women on college campuses truly was a national crisis, one that should command the attention of all levels of government. First, she echoed President Obama and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, declaring that “the price of a college education should never include a one in five chance of being sexually assaulted.”
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Senator Gillibrand’s answer to the crisis was the Campus Accountability & Safety Act. Working with her close ally Senator Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), Gillibrand assembled a bipartisan coalition of senators to crack down on campus rape. Like most statutory “reforms,” this one combines largely unobjectionable provisions (such as requiring greater transparency from academic institutions) with noxious requirements for new campus bureaucracies, unjustified immunities for students who report sexual violence, and politically correct training and questioning mandates. In other words, it doubles down on the bizarre world of campus justice, where alleged crimes are adjudicated without real due process, outside the conventional rules of evidence, and utilizing the lowest possible burdens of proof.
It turns out that one in five women aren’t actually sexually assaulted on campus.
But even as Senator Gillibrand was becoming the legislative face of the federal crackdown on campus rape, the “facts” of the crisis were replaced by, well, actual facts.
Better data showed not only a dramatically lower rate of campus sexual assaults — 6.1 per 1,000 – but also that the rate of sexual assaults was higher off campus than on. Non-students were 1.2 times more likely to be assaulted than students. Moreover, the rate of sexual assault has in fact been declining for decades. How did Senator Gillibrand respond to this new information? She quietly deleted references to the false statistics on her website, yet pressed on with her legislation anyway.
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Embarrassingly, the stories of Gillibrand’s hand-picked “survivors” — including Sulkowicz — began to fall apart. It turns out that The Hunting Ground highlighted women with known credibility problems. Sulkowicz not only hadn’t been able to prove her case in a Columbia sex-assault adjudication, the New York police found insufficient evidence to proceed against her alleged attacker. New information — released as part of her alleged attacker’s lawsuit against Columbia University — showed extensive private communications from Sulkowicz that were inconsistent with her (very public) allegations. To cap off the messy story, she was last seen releasing a short, pornographic film that appeared to portray her alleged rape.
In an interview with New York magazine, Gillibrand was unapologetic for her role in advancing potentially false allegations — allegations that damage the lives of the accused. She was mainly concerned that criticism could “stifle debate” and “result in survivors withdrawing.” As for Sulkowicz herself, Gillibrand said, “Emma has given courage to many more survivors than those who are now doubting [her story].” Close scrutiny of criminal allegations is just “noise” and “negativity.” In other words, the ends justify the means, and lies serve a useful purpose.
The Left prides itself on being “data-driven” and “reality-based,” but here the data and the reality show that the relatively wealthy cohort of college women are safer from sexual assault than their poorer and more vulnerable non-student peers. The campus, however, is the playpen of the feminist Left, and campus reforms tend to increase radical feminist power and influence. So the wealthy women get their custom-designed, woman-friendly amateur justice system, while the poor and the rest of the non-student population has to deal with such irritants as “due process” and “rules of evidence.”
Gillibrand is not alone in her zeal — Senator McCaskill is every bit as dedicated — but she has become the face of a movement that is both impervious to facts and utterly indifferent to the plight of the accused. Rahm Emanuel is famous for bragging about the political usefulness of a “serious crisis.” When it comes to campus sexual assault, Senator Gillibrand and her allies, however, have taken the principle even further: Even a fake crisis is too valuable to waste.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.