Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault and rape.
Earlier this year, the Connecticut Supreme Court passed down its ruling concerning the immunity of rape victims in Title IX cases on campus. Title IX is the law that governs how sexual assault cases are supposed to be handled on college campuses. In a 7–0 vote, the court concluded that due to certain lacks of fairness, full immunity could not be extended to a Title IX victim of rape at Yale, and that a defamation case against her could continue.
This case began in 2015 when then-Yale student Saifullah Khan went to a party around his college campus. He met an acquaintance, who for protection in court documents is referred to as Jane Doe. The two went back to her residence and what followed is disputed. According to Khan, Doe was inebriated and he had consensual sex with her, while Doe claimed that she had fallen asleep only to wake up and find Khan in her bed, naked and with condoms on the floor. This event was reported to the campus police the same day, and within a few days, Khan had been arrested on charges of sexual assault.
Yale then suspended Khan from the school and the case went to trial in March 2017. In criminal court, Khan was acquitted of all his charges by a six-person jury and allowed to return as a student to Yale University. However, another accusation emerged and Yale was forced to suspend Khan once again. In 2019 the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct found him responsible for the 2015 assault and expelled him from the university. The expulsion led Khan to sue Yale over damages to his reputation as well as breach of contract for not giving him his degree. He is seeking over $110 million and accused Doe of defamation.
The nature of this lawsuit is highly unusual in most campus sexual assault cases since victims are protected by Title IX of the U.S. Civil Rights Act which prevents intimidation or threats against victims. However, in their ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court described the Yale UWC hearing as quasi-judicial due to a lack of cross-examination, failure to place witnesses under oath and failure to provide transcripts to Khan and his defense team. Due to this lack of safeguards, the court ruled that Khan was not granted a fair trial, and thus the victim was not entitled to immunity.
This ruling could be widely cited in future lawsuits and have a chilling effect on college campuses for rape victims and other victims of sexual harassment and discrimination. Title IX only stipulates that all educational institutions that receive federal funding or assistance need to have fair investigations in cases involving discrimination based on sex. However, what constitutes as fair is not specified, and is subject to change with each presidential administration. Usually, when a new President arrives at the White House, their Department of Education drafts new guidelines on how Title IX should be implemented in schools and colleges. Saifullah Khan’s case was tried by the university under Obama-era guidelines which do not mandate cross-examination, a process during which witnesses are questioned for the validity of their testimony. However, when President Trump was elected in 2016, his administration reversed many of those guidelines. Now that President Biden is in the White House, his Department of Education is set to restore many Obama-era guidelines in the coming months.
One can see how daunting and confusing the system is to navigate with each successive administration changing, deleting and readjusting guidelines to the use of Title IX. What is encouraged for one year is suddenly quasi-judicial the next, and for victims, it is even more damaging, potentially leading to fear of getting sued. This case also highlights the shortcomings of colleges behaving like courts during sexual assault-related disciplinary hearings. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruling clearly displays a lack of fairness and protection for the accused in the Yale UWC hearing. In its ruling, the court described the UWC hearing as unfair and improper, further describing that the school had effectively reduced Khan’s lawyers to the status of a “potted plant.”
This system is set up in an overly convoluted way in which the victim and those who are innocent may be harmed or traumatized by a university’s investigations into sexual assault on college campuses. It should be the goal of Congress to codify a version of Title IX guidelines into law to prevent further changes and distortions. A more concrete system would help colleges set up more fair and impartial Title IX hearings and prevent further harm to victims and the wrongfully accused.