The legal train wreck that was Joe Lonsdale’s ban from Stanford has finally come to an end, but what caused the derailment in the first place? Worryingly – despite uproar over Stanford’s suspension of its own Band last year – it appears the Title IX office is still launching indiscriminate witch-hunts, then asking questions later. Stanford expels students and clamps down on groups based on whatever evidence it deems admissible, using a more-likely-than-not standard of proof, while flagrantly violating its own rules to prosecute targets on campus. Nobody cared when this process occurred to the occasional anonymous student. The tide only began to turn when the university directed its attention on the Band.
However, Title IX’s real harm lies not with those groups who are able to defend themselves, but rather individuals who find themselves backed into a corner, their rights limited and their legitimacy left in tatters by a university-led inquisition. Most of these individuals are nameless students whose complaints about due process are ignored. Joe Lonsdale’s banishment from campus is different. It has brought the injustice of Title IX into the limelight, and made even clearer the urgent need for its reform.
The action mounted against Lonsdale was spurious at best, utilizing a combination of improperly contextualized events and legal bullying designed to strike fear into a university terrified of looking weak on the issue of sexual assault. What made it worse was the literal presumption of guilt that Stanford placed on Lonsdale, ejecting him from campus with no more notice than a letter and allegations of “sexual abuse”, and then forcing him to claw his way back to innocence – not that his image in the press is close to recovered post-acquittal. What is arguably more incredible is that Stanford thought it irrelevant to assess the thousands of emails between Lonsdale and the person he was accused of assaulting – all sent long before the Title IX complaint began – in the first place, until the New York Times compelled the university to read them.
Lonsdale was lucky enough to have both the immense evidence and the legal team necessary to appeal the decision and obtain a reversal. Had the accused been a low-income student, or someone in a less long-term (and hence well-documented) relationship, Stanford’s autonomous decision might well have gone unchallenged. Even so, Lonsdale’s public image was de facto burned. As soon as Stanford issued its ten-year ban, the media exploded, thrusting his name into the public spotlight with coverage that can never be redacted. The reporting of Lonsdale being “accused of sexual assault” was indistinguishable from a criminal allegation to the average newspaper reader.
Despite a reverse burden of proof, one might expect at least that the path to appeal a Title IX sentence would be fair on and open to both sides. Stanford’s procedures, as it turns out, create a process that makes the Chinese politburo look transparent: the university was barred even from telling Lonsdale what he was accused of, let alone giving him access to the evidence on which they were evaluating his fate. Universities still have the right to prohibit the accused from bringing a lawyer to hearings. Moreover, until President Hennessy approves the Task Force recommendations to begin in January, Alternative Review guidelines continue to state that defending oneself with “logical […] arguments” constitutes evidence of having actually committed sexual assault. The accused, as a result, end up in the strange situation of explaining their behaviour irrationally in order to avoid conviction.
With the great power that the Justice Department’s reinterpretation of Title IX has given Stanford comes the great responsibility to treat the accused fairly. These violations of due process and basic justice allow Stanford to pursue essentially whatever action on sexual assault it so desires, casting to one side the rights – to a fair trial, clear evidentiary standards, legal representation and others – of those unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire. Title IX has justified itself by claiming that it should not be held to the same standard as a court: it is rather a civil process for excluding students from campus, and does not address issues as serious as criminal conviction, argue its proponents. This justification has always been preposterous, implying it could be permissible to destroy a student’s entire academic future on a more-likely-than-not standard so long as they do not go to prison. The Lonsdale case, though, has permanently eviscerated the straw man on which any remaining shreds of Title IX’s legitimacy rest.