College students who file sexual assault complaints with their universities are increasingly facing defamation lawsuits filed by accused students, according to a new Buzzfeed report.
Following interviews at colleges and with activists and lawyers regarding this trend, reporter Tyler Kingkade writes:
Colby Bruno, a lawyer at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, said that a few years ago, about 5% of her cases arising from alleged campus sexual assaults involved an accuser facing a defamation suit; now a little more than half do. When attorney Laura Dunn started her victim advocacy nonprofit SurvJustice in 2014, she said she did not get any requests from students facing threats of defamation suits for reporting a sexual assault. Since last year, though, Dunn estimates five students have called asking for her help. Until a couple of years ago, Schneider had only seen one student who reported a sexual assault to their college get sued for defamation. Now, he said, it happens in around a quarter of cases he’s involved in. “I think that percentage is going to rise.”
Often, these lawsuits are filed just to scare a student into not reporting their assault or withdrawing their claims, even when there is sufficient evidence to support them. And just dealing with these lawsuits can be enormously expensive. Buzzfeed spoke with one woman, known in the piece as Jane Doe, who was sued for defamation by her ex-husband after their university found him in violation of campus assault policies against her. She says that so far it has cost nearly $20,000 to defend herself.
The use of defamation suits in cases of sexual assault has also occurred in some high-profile cases outside of university walls. Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston countersued his accuser, Erica Kinsman, in 2015. Most recently director Brett Ratner sued a woman for libel over a Facebook post and Crystal Castles singer Ethan Kath is suing former bandmate Alice Glass over allegations of sexual assault and abuse.
Anti-SLAPP laws, which would protect those making public statements about their alleged harassers as free speech, may be one way to defeat defamation lawsuits of this kind, though, Buzzfeed reports, 22 states do not currently have them. But whether those laws would protect someone making a statement on social media rather than filing a police report or going to the press, which is becoming an increasingly common tactic, is still unclear.
Groups like the Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) and Stop Abusive & Violent Environments (SAVE) represent accused students and have begun to negatively influence Title IX polices under Betsy DeVos. And these groups often argue that false rape claims are very common and that the young men accused are victims as well.
“Some of them are very angry, and some of them are very bitter,” the attorney Kerry Sutton told BuzzFeed News. “If a client wants to name someone who has no assets and hurt them and humiliate them, and do whatever makes them feel right, if it’s legal and it’s ethical, and there’s some reason to do it. It’s their case, they get to decide.”