Two colleges are threatening to toss out the lawsuits of alleged victims of sexual assault unless the women reveal their identities to the public. The move sends an alarming message to victims of sexual assault, and if adopted by more colleges, will undoubtedly deter victims from coming forward.
The New York Times reports that Florida A&M and Dartmouth College have taken unusual and troubling actions against students who’ve sued the institutions, demanding in court that the women—whose identities are known by administrators—also share their names with the public.
One woman, identified in court documents as “S.B.” alleges she was raped three times in 2012 and 2013, and that campus officials did not adequately investigate the claims or protect her from having further contact with the alleged rapists. Florida A&M countered with a demand for “her legal name be provided to jurors at trial,” insisting that this was essential for “a fair and open trial” because she had publicly identified the alleged rapists and the campus officials who allegedly mishandled her case. The university tried to have the lawsuit dismissed three times unless S.B. reveal her identity.
Judge Mark E. Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida denied the request, saying in his decision, “Outing an alleged rape victim simply because other parties or individuals involved in the lawsuit are not proceeding anonymously serves no legitimate public interest.”
At Dartmouth, several plaintiffs have launched a class-action lawsuit that accuses professors of turning the research department into “a 21st-century Animal House.” According to court documents, professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen allegedly “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped female students” for over a decade.
While some of the women chose to use their names to talk about the allegations to the press, three of the plaintiffs are anonymous. Dartmouth argues that remaining anonymous “would hamper the ability of investigators to gather information from the rest of the class” and “that anonymous plaintiffs could not properly represent a class-action lawsuit.”
Dartmouth does, however, “support the right of women to file anonymously if they are filing as individuals,” according to a spokesman. The two parties have agreed to mediation as they await a decision from the judge.
Many victims choose to stay anonymous in court filings over fear of retaliation, stigma, and a desire for privacy given the sensitive nature of their allegations. Federal guidelines, too, stress maintaining privacy and confidentiality in such cases. But the lawsuits come at a time when the Department of Education is considering a new set of rules that will weaken protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and some students are already feeling the repercussions. Their strategy is not unlike ones used to protect other powerful institutions, explained lawyer Irwin Zalkin, who represents sexual assault victims.
“It’s a scare tactic,” he said. “They know they’re going to be exposed, going to be ridiculed, going to be called liars, and these institutions want to capitalize on that fear.”
If more colleges pursue this strategy, they will create yet another infuriating obstacle for victims of sexual assault.