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October 21 2016

The Star Chamber Comes to American Campuses

Charlotte Hays

If you're a history buff, you'll recall that England's notorious Star Chamber was a tribunal that used secrecy and always got the desired guilty verdict. The term Star Chamber echoed down the centuries as a byword for arbitrary rulings.

Jennifer Braceras has an excellent piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal that compares the handling of sexual accusations against young men on campus to the Star Chamber. She tells the story of Jack Montague, a former Yale University men's basketball captain, who was expelled from the Ivy League college after an investigation by Yale bureaucrats.

They launched the investigation of Montague on the basis of gossip. According to the gossip, a female student identified as "Roe" had had “a bad experience” with Montague a year before he was investigated. Roe filed no report, but a Title IX coordinator interviewed her and filed a complaint.

It was almost a foregone conclusion, Montague is now asserting in a lawsuit, that he would be found guilty. He alleges he was not given ample opportunity to defend himself. The case against Montague unfolded in this environment:

To start, [Yale has] expanded the terms harassment and assault beyond traditional legal definitions. Under Yale’s sexual misconduct policy, sexual harassment includes verbal statements that have the “effect” of creating an “intimidating” environment. Sexual assault includes any contact without “positive, unambiguous, and voluntary” consent. According to Yale, consent must be “ongoing” at each stage of an encounter but “cannot be inferred from the absence of a ‘no’ ” or presumed from “contextual factors.”

With these expanded definitions in hand, “independent investigators”—eager to justify their employment by a university desperate to appear tough on sexual misconduct—rush off to find evidence of violations. They build dossiers on professors’ offhand comments made decades earlier. They probe the murky “he said-she said” of drunken hook-ups seeking to prove that consent was not freely given, irrespective of whether a crime has been committed. Administrative tribunals, lacking due process protections provided in a court of law, determine guilt and mete out punishments that forever label people misogynists, harassers, or perpetrators of sexual assault.

Braceras compares the Yale proceedings against Montague to those of the Star Chamber:

Perhaps most concerning, Yale’s courts of sexual misconduct do not allow accused persons to cross-examine the witnesses against them. This, despite the fact that American courts have long found the ability to cross-examine witnesses to be a critical component of due process, particularly where, as in Mr. Montague’s case, the credibility of contradictory witnesses determines the outcome.

In many ways, however, Yale’s tribunals are less fair to the accused than even the dreaded Star Chamber, which allowed defendants to share information about the proceedings with friends and colleagues, call witnesses in their own defense, and bring along an advocate to speak and submit documents on their behalf. Mr. Montague was denied all of these opportunities.

Like many other universities, Yale determines guilt by a mere “preponderance of the evidence” rather than by the more exacting “clear and convincing evidence” standard traditionally used by universities in student disciplinary matters or proceedings involving faculty speech or conduct.

In other words, universities use kangaroo courts and justify this by citing a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter from the Department of Education justifying lower legal standards in accusations campus sexual assaults. Believe you me, I want sexual offenders punished.

But in our system the accused has a right to a defense because sometimes they just might be innocent. In the Star Chamber and apparently on college campuses today, that doesn't matter.

Montague has filed suit against Yale in a federalcourt in Connecticut, claiming that the system used to expel him was biased and that his reputation has been damaged. The case is pending.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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