This past October, a former Wesleyan student filed a lawsuit against the University. The student, who has used the pseudonym Jane Doe in court proceedings to maintain her anonymity, says that she was raped in a locked room during the fraternity’s 2010 Halloween party by John O’Neill, 21, of Yorktown, NY. O’Neill was a guest of the fraternity and not a Wesleyan student. He was charged with first-degree sexual assault, pleaded no contest to lesser charges of third-degree assault and first-degree unlawful restraint a little over a year ago, and is now serving a 15-month prison sentence, from which he will be released next month.
According to The Hartford Courant, “The woman’s lawsuit, filed last October, charges Wesleyan with violating Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, by failing “to supervise, discipline, warn or take other corrective action” against the fraternity, actions that it says could have prevented the assault.” Wesleyan warned students in an email in March 2010 to avoid Beta due to safety concerns. Jane Doe says that, as she was not aware of that warning, she went to the frat’s Halloween party, where she was raped.
Fast-forward to the present. Lawyers for the Wesleyan chapter of Beta Theta Pi (which is also a defendant in the case) filed papers this week arguing that Jane Doe should not be able to use the pseudonym in the federal lawsuit. The Hartford Courant summarizes their motion as follows:
Lawyers for the Mu Epsilon chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Wesleyan said the woman should not be allowed to proceed with her lawsuit under the pseudonym “Jane Doe” because “it allows her to make defamatory statements against” the fraternity and Wesleyan “behind a cloak of anonymity,” according to a motion filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Jane Doe argued that she should be permitted to continue using the pseudonym “to preserve the privacy and emotional and physical well-being of this survivor of sexual assault and rape in a sensitive and highly personal matter.” The Beta lawyers’ argument continued as follows:
[T]he woman’s interest in anonymity in the Wesleyan case “does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure” and “will result in prejudice” to the defense lawyers’ investigation and handling of the case. The woman “fails to provide support for her claim that the disclosure of her name would affect her emotional and physical well-being,” the lawsuit says.
The woman has left Wesleyan “as has almost half the undergraduate student body who were enrolled at the time of the alleged incident,” and she is not in “face-to-face contact with any of the fraternity members, administrators or students she alleges to be involved,” lawyers for the fraternity argue.
The woman’s anonymity is also making it hard for witnesses to identify her, the motion states. “As time passes and students graduate, the task of investigating this matter becomes next to impossible without the ability” to identify her.
Just about every line of the above paragraphs summarizing the lawyers’ motion disturbed me in one way or another. However, the ones on which I’d like to focus are these:
The woman “fails to provide support for her claim that the disclosure of her name would affect her emotional and physical well-being,” the lawsuit says. The woman has left Wesleyan “as has almost half the undergraduate student body who were enrolled at the time of the alleged incident,” and she is not in “face-to-face contact with any of the fraternity members, administrators or students she alleges to be involved,” lawyers for the fraternity argue. [Emphasis added.]
Let’s have a little Wesleyan history lesson here.
The Beta sexual assault case was followed in November 2010 by an email from the administration containing this quote: “we advise all Wesleyan students that they should avoid the residence because we cannot establish the safety of the premises.” This was followed by a far more controversial email from Dean Mike Whaley in February 2011. The email revised Wesleyan’s housing policy to forbid students from residing in – or having social events in – off-campus houses or “property owned, leased, or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University. As if it were not clear enough that this was targeting Beta, the next paragraph stated, “DKE, Psi U, and Alpha Delt are recognized as part of program housing and are thus not affected by this change. This revised policy would, however, have major consequences for Beta which has chosen to not participate in program housing and is therefore not recognized by the University.”
The kicker? This line: “Students found to be in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary measures by the University, including suspension.” [Emphasis original.]
Many students protested the administration’s overreach of authority until President Roth reversed the change in housing policy. However, according to Jane Doe, some students did not target the University with their protests, but rather began chanting “Free Beta” outside her dorm and other places she was at on campus. Yes, that’s right: according to this lawsuit, students actually protested against her for, in their minds, invoking the administration’s response against Beta by reporting her rape.
So, it’s clear that her reporting of her rape in October 2010 affected her emotional well-being and caused her to fear for her physical well-being. How do the lawyers get around this suggestion that revealing her identity could threaten her emotional well-being again? By saying that she is not in “face-to-face contact with any of the fraternity members, administrators or students she alleges to be involved.” [Emphasis added.]
Face-to-face contact? Seriously?
We don’t live in a world where you can distance yourself from someone or something by avoiding “face-to-face contact” anymore. We live in a world connected by Facebook, Twitter, Skype, email. You could move to another city, another state, another country and still reachable by almost everyone you physically left behind.
Jane Doe was in the class of 2014. I am in the class of 2014. It’s quite likely that we crossed paths over the course of her time at Wesleyan. I may even be Facebook friends with her. Likewise, while she may not be Facebook friends with the individuals involved in this case, she is likely friends with their friends, and the friends of their friends. If someone knew her name and wanted to find her, they could – and it would be easy.
Even if they cannot physically find her, could they use the Internet to harm her emotional well-being? Of course they could. The phenomenon is so frequent that we even have a word and legal definition for it. The ACB is problematic and controversial because it allows people to anonymously attack others. Even in Wesleying’s comment sections, things can get heated and feelings get hurt. This is without even considering how defensive people can get of their fraternities and universities about minute conflicts – let alone one of this magnitude.
Are the lawyers in this case really suggesting that revealing Jane Doe’s identity would not cause her emotional harm, when so many people suffer emotional harm on the internet for reasons that are far less emotionally-charged? When things like this happened to the sexual assault survivor in the Steubenville rape case? Maybe – or, at least, they’re claiming that she didn’t set out why she would be emotionally at-risk, as if it weren’t evident enough already to anyone with even a tangential understanding of the dark recesses of the Internet.
Either way, I hope that the judge throws this out and upholds the previous judge’s order to permit her to remain anonymous. We’ll keep you updated on this as more occurs. In the mean time, read this post and this post about sexual assault by pyrotechnics if you didn’t read them already, as well as the other “Related” links.
EDIT (6/17/13, 3:12 AM): And now we’re in the Huffington Post. Thanks, anonymous commenter!
Related – Sexual Assault, Prevention, and Discussion:
The Argus: The Argus Examines University Sexual Assault Response
Does the Administration Really Care More About Tour de Franzia Than Sexual Assault?
Shock and Awe
You Should Read This: Sexual Assault and its Supernumeraries
You Should Read This One, Too
Solow ’12 Makes a Tumblr: “Messages For Survivors”
Related – Personal Accounts of Sexual Assault:
The Amherst Student: An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College
A Repost: Silence is Not the Remedy for Rape
Wesleyan is Great, Unless A Professor Sexually Harasses You
The Argus: Wesleyan’s Great, Unless You Get Raped