Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at schools that get federal funding, is usually invoked by alleged victims of sexual assault who say their universities failed to adequately respond to their reports. On Friday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made it easier for men accused of sexual assault to sue schools for taking the alleged victims’ side.
The court ruled that a former Columbia University student can move forward with a Title IX complaint that claims the school exhibited anti-male bias when it suspended him for a year for allegedly raping a fellow student in 2013. The opinion reversed a 2015 U.S. district court decision to throw the case out.
In its decision, the appeals court did not rule on whether the alleged perpetrator committed the crime or whether Columbia did indeed discriminate against him based on his sex; it just ruled that the case he presented, if it’s true, could reasonably constitute a Title IX violation. “Needless to say, the facts a plaintiff alleges in the complaint may turn out to be self-serving and untrue,” Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote on behalf of the three judges. “But a court at this stage of our proceeding is not engaged in an effort to determine the true facts.”
The alleged victim’s story will likely come out when Columbia defends its suspension of the alleged perpetrator, but the alleged perpetrator says he only had consensual sexual contact with her. He also says that the school’s Title IX investigator was “motivated by pro-female sex bias” and discriminated against him by siding with the alleged victim, in part to combat the bad press Columbia was fighting at the time in regards to its handling of other sexual assault cases.
“A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a police of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex,” Leval wrote in Friday’s decision.
This decision is a troubling interpretation of Title IX that could hamper schools’ capacity to properly punish and prevent sexual assaults on campus. “The idea that vigilance to victims is a ‘pro woman bias’ potentially amounting to discrimination is a concerning perspective,” law professor Jamie Abrams told the Washington Post. As Nora Caplan-Bricker wrote in Slate back in March, schools should be able to aim their efforts against sexual assault where they’ll have the most impact:
The [students accused of sexual assault] who make arguments under Title IX … claim that the system is rigged against them. Vassar student Peter Yu’s complaint after his expulsion argued that he’d experienced gender discrimination because “Vassar’s guidelines and regulations are set up to disproportionately affect the male student population of the Vassar College community as a result of the higher incidence of female complainants of sexual misconduct against male complainants of sexual misconduct.” Under this logic, the very fact that the vast majority of rapes involve a male perpetrator and a female victim invalidates any imaginable effort to stop them from happening.
Friday’s appeals court decision will likely affect several other Title IX cases in the works that claim anti-male bias against alleged rapists. Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz famously carried her dorm mattress around campus for two semesters to protest what she believed was the school’s insufficient response to her alleged 2012 rape by fellow student Paul Nungesser. The university found Nungesser “not responsible,” but he has filed two Title IX suits against Columbia, alleging that the school did not protect him from Sulkowicz’s protest. Jack Montague, the star basketball player expelled from Yale University this year for “sexual misconduct,” has also sued his school and its Title IX coordinators for defamation and breach of contract. Montague’s lawyer told the Post that he expects Friday’s ruling to work in Montague’s favor.
Title IX was created in the spirit of gender equality, and women bear a disproportionate burden of sexual violence and gender inequality in all its forms. Sexual assault is not a gender-blind phenomenon—an equitable interpretation of Title IX would recognize that a school’s decision against an alleged rapist who is male does not necessarily constitute anti-male bias. There is no question that colleges should fully and fairly investigate sexual-assault claims made against students. Maybe Columbia did in this case, and maybe it didn’t. But validating a claim that the school’s investigation was somehow motivated by sexism against men is a perversion of justice that will empower more men to challenge women-only study spaces and anti-rape efforts alike.