There is a strange fiction that dominates American college campuses. It is the belief that America’s most “tolerant,” progressive, and sensitive communities are simultaneously virtual hellholes for marginalized members of the community, justifying emergency extra-constitutional measures designed to end oppression and defend the defenseless. Thus, the federal government hypes false statistics that a staggering 20 percent of female students will be victims of sexual assault. Thus, campuses implement disciplinary practices and policies that deny due process and treat straight men as guilty until proven innocent. And, colleges claim, it’s all necessary. After all, rape and sexual harassment represent life-changing traumas. False accusations and unjust punishment? Well, that’s just a momentary inconvenience — a small price to pay for the cause of social justice.
Tell that to the family of Thomas Klocke, a student at the University of Texas at Arlington.
On June 2, 2016, Klocke committed suicide — mere days after learning that he’d been disciplined for allegedly “harassing” a gay student. Last week, his family filed a lawsuit, laying out claims that — if proven true — should send chills down the spines of parents of male children.
The competing factual accounts are simple and difficult to resolve. A gay student accused Klocke (who was straight) of typing “gays should die” into the search bar of his browser during a classroom conversation about privilege. When the gay student then typed into his own computer, “I’m gay.” Klocke then allegedly said that the gay student was a “faggot” and that he should consider killing himself.
Klocke’s account was diametrically opposed. He claimed that the gay student called him “beautiful.” Klocke then typed into his web browser, “Stop, I’m straight.” The gay student replied, “I’m gay” and then allegedly kept glancing at Klocke, who eventually got up and moved seats.
The claims of what happened next are extraordinary. After the class, the gay student allegedly approached a senior administrator he knew, the university’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students. Rather than launching the school’s Title IX process for resolving complaints of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, the dean assisted the student in preparing a claim that circumvented normal procedures entirely.
The dean then allegedly assigned the case to the school’s associate director of academic integrity, who promptly issued an order prohibiting Klocke not only from contacting his accuser, he also prohibited him from attending the class where the incident occurred, and — crucially — from contacting any member of the class, directly or through any other person. Later, he reportedly barred Klocke’s father, an attorney, from attending a meeting regarding the case, and then “decided” the dispute without following university-prescribed procedures, without giving Klocke the opportunity to contact or call witnesses, and indeed without hearing from any witness who could corroborate either student’s claims. The school, for its part, denies that it departed from mandatory processes and asserts that it “followed its policies and procedures.”
The associate director of academic integrity found Klocke responsible for “harassment,” placed him on probation for the remainder of his academic career at the university, and prohibited him from returning to the class where the incident occurred, though he could work on “group projects outside the classroom.”
Parents of college boys sometimes take comfort that they can avoid the atmosphere of anti-male hysteria by asking them to follow some relatively simple, commonsense guidelines. Don’t drink too much. Don’t engage the hook-up culture. Use basic manners so that coarse talk isn’t misconstrued. No advice is foolproof, of course, but following those three guidelines — in addition to being virtuous on their own merits — will help avoid a multitude of problems.
Not for Klocke, however. If his account is true (the university claims it followed proper procedures), then he was doing everything right. He was minding his own business in class, declined an unwelcome sexual advance, and changed seats. If his account is true, a gay student potentially motivated by embarrassment or fear was able to take advantage of the known bias of campus administrators to punish the man that he approached.
During my own legal career, I’ve worked with students who’ve experienced many of the same things that Thomas Klocke’s family claims that he experienced.
The lawsuit makes the interesting claim — one that rings true with my own experience — that universities have “sought prestige and publicity portraying themselves as leaders in curtailing sexual harassment, sexual violence, and aggressive behavior on campus.” Consequently, they “have a vested interest in enacting swift and harsh punishment (almost always upon males) who are merely accused of sexual harassment, sexual violence, or aggressive behavior, in order to preserve the appearance of their leadership.”
During my own legal career, I’ve worked with students who’ve experienced many of the same things that Thomas Klocke’s family claims that he experienced. I’ve represented students whose parents were barred from disciplinary meetings, leaving them to face the wrath of administrators alone. I’ve seen students exploit existing relationships with administrators to achieve favorable outcomes in campus controversies. And I’ve also seen the speed and authority with which universities will respond to complaints by members of favored progressive victim groups.
But there’s something else I’ve seen. I’ve seen the cost imposed on students accused of misconduct — the fear and the stress as they feel like their reputations, their careers, and their dreams are vanishing before their very eyes. When they’re in the middle of the battle, and an entire school seems set against them, it can be hard to maintain perspective and to see through to the other side.
Suicide is a complicated phenomenon, and I have no doubt that additional facts will emerge as the case works its way through the judicial system, but no one — ever — should believe that crackdowns come without cost or that due process is an abstract concept, a mere inconvenience that stands in the way of social justice. As I’ve argued before, our universities stand on the edge of a constitutional crisis. Lawsuits are filling courtrooms from coast to coast, men and women face terrifying on-campus witch hunts, and the ideological and financial incentives are pushing universities to shove aside students’ and professors’ unalienable rights to meet the impossible demands of unreasonable campus radicals.
One doesn’t minimize sexual assault or sexual harassment by preserving due process. It is not a matter of either protecting the rights of the accuser or respecting the rights of the accused. Instead, due process is a basic human right. Failing to respect that right inflicts its own unique form of trauma on students, and sometimes that trauma can carry with it horrifying consequences.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.