In January 2010, University of North Dakota student Caleb Warner was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student. Using a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, a UND tribunal found Warner guilty of sexual misconduct and swiftly expelled him. Yet the police, presented with the same evidence, never arrested or charged Mr. Warner. After a three-month investigation, they charged Warner’s accuser with filing a false report and issued a warrant for her arrest.
Despite these developments, UND repeatedly refused to rescind Warner’s expulsion. Joined by the civil-liberties group FIRE, Caleb Warner’s mother, Sherry Warner-Seefeld, launched a tenacious campaign against the university. After a year and a half, UND finally reexamined her son’s case, determined that its finding of guilt was “not substantiated,” and lifted all sanctions against Mr. Warner. Though his name has been cleared and he is free to return to campus, Warner has chosen not to continue his studies at UND.
Caleb Warner is just one casualty in the federal government’s assault on campus due process. Last month, his mother announced the launching of a new nonprofit called Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE). Warner-Seefeld’s co-founders, Allison Strange and Judith Grossman, also have sons who experienced the nightmare of false accusations and subsequent railroading by university courts. (For information on their ordeals, see here and here.) FACE will work to “promote and insure fairness; and seek justice for all those caught up in the timely and provocative issue of sexual misconduct on college campuses.”
Below is an e-mail exchange in which Sherry Warner-Seefeld explains the objectives of FACE and gives her perspective on the current policy debate surrounding campus sexual assault. I originally contacted Ms. Warner-Seefeld for a comment while writing an analysis for NRO of the Senate’s new bipartisan sexual-assault bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. However, her comments are so incisive that they deserve to be published in full.
Why did you co-found FACE? What is your main objective?
I co-founded Families Advocating for Campus Equality because I wanted there to be an organization that provided a support network for families going through the horrific experience our family endured. It was such a lonely road to travel, and I want others to have more support than we did. In addition, I believe that Americans place a high value on constitutional rights, and I have faith that if they knew about what is happening on campuses, they would demand that fair and equitable procedures in accord with the Constitution be implemented.
Do you believe that lawmakers are interested in listening to your perspective?
I do believe lawmakers are interested in listening to my perspective. What I believe most of them struggle with is how to find balance on this issue.
It seems that if a person dares to suggest that there is another aspect to the sexual-assault story, one that goes beyond rape hysteria, that person is viciously attacked and accused of being an apologist for rape. I know this from personal experience. That is such a fallacy. As an American I can be firmly on the side of taking steps to stop sexual assault while at the same time seeking solutions that do not imperil the future of an innocent person.
Do you believe that the views of the falsely accused and of civil-liberties advocates have been adequately represented in policy debates?
No. There is no possible way any of the recent task forces, committees, or any other significant entity can say they had representation from civil-liberties advocates or from those who have suffered through a false accusation that was accepted by campus authorities. Just look at the make-up of all these task forces and committees. In many cases the exact same people or organizations are represented, leading to a very one-sided discussion.
Group-think is a decidedly dangerous way to write policy. Even if you do not agree with someone else’s opinions or ideas, hearing all perspectives helps to make the final product stronger. We have repeatedly asked for a voice at these tables, and I am pleading with policymakers to listen to all those who have contributions to make. The resulting policy will inevitably be better.
It is beyond my wildest imagination that any American would strive to implement policies or laws which, in an effort to protect one set of victims, create another group that is victimized by the process.
What is your reaction to the bipartisan sexual-assault legislation sponsored by Senator McCaskill et al., the Campus Accountability and Safety Act?
As currently written, it is a weak document. There are many commendable provisions; however, the bill as a whole would be very dangerous to our country. Americans ought to be very frightened of establishing policies that would circumvent and interfere with our criminal-justice system in favor of allowing college administrators to determine guilt on serious charges, all while potentially allowing real criminals to remain free in our communities. If in fact a person is a rapist, is it really enough to simply expel him from a university campus?
How do you think the McCaskill legislation will affect men on college campuses?
While the majority of victims of false accusation currently are men, that may not always be the case. We are seeing more homosexual relationships caught up in this situation.
When the person who makes the accusation is provided with unlimited support and virtually guaranteed a win in a campus hearing, innocent people will be found guilty. The result will be a set of significant problems for these newly created victims — lack of a college education and difficulty finding a job and building a career, along with substantial physical, emotional, and psychological damage.
— Caroline Kitchens is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her on Twitter @cl_kitchens.