It's a familiar story: A student is suing a university over the alleged mishandling of a sexual assault report. But the suit filed in federal court in New York City last week against Columbia University has a different twist: The student is male — and his complaint is that he was denied due process when the university suspended him for a year and a half on a complaint of sexual misconduct.
According to the suit, the student, identified only as John Doe, had a consensual "hookup" with his accuser, a fellow student and his roommate's ex-girlfriend, in the bathroom of her dorm room, shortly before the end of the 2013 spring term. He claims that the young woman invited him to her dorm room for a sexual encounter.
In the next several days, he says, she texted him to express concern about how their encounter would be perceived in their social circle if it became known.
After both students returned to school, in September, Jane Doe filed charges within the university's disciplinary system, accusing the young man of "non-consensual sexual intercourse." After what John Doe claims was an egregiously biased investigation, in an atmosphere of heightened attention to the problem of campus sexual assault, he was found responsible and punished with a suspension until the fall of 2015. Remarkably, the lawsuit states that the accuser unsuccessfully tried to appeal the sentence as too severe.
The lawsuit claims that John Doe was railroaded because Columbia University was anxious to shield itself from criticism for being too lenient with male students accused of sexual assault, particularly student-athletes. (The accused was a member of the crew team.) The complaint also alleges sex discrimination, asserting the student was singled out for unfair treatment because he is male.
Far from being an oddity, this suit is part of a growing trend. Similar complaints are pending against other schools, including the University of Michigan and Vassar College. A Pennsylvania federal judge this month refused to dismiss such a lawsuit against St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In April, Ohio's Xavier University settled a lawsuit from basketball player Dez Wells, who was expelled in 2012 over what he says — and the county prosecutor agrees — was a false accusation of rape.
Are all of these male plaintiffs innocent of wrongdoing? Nobody knows — just as nobody knows whether all of the female students who are suing schools for not taking their reports of sexual assault seriously were really assaulted. But the lawsuits from men highlight issues that tend to be neglected in the campaign for the worthy cause of preventing and punishing sexual violence.
Among these issues is the tendency in college hearings to presume guilt in he said-she said cases, particularly with strong pressure from the federal government for schools to use the lowest evidentiary standard. This is exacerbated by disciplinary codes which define "non-consensual sex" so broadly that even slight intoxication can negate consent and verbal persuasion can be deemed coercive.
The claims by male plaintiffs are reminders that there is, quite literally, another side to the story. The complaint from Columbia's John Doe says he had to get counseling for suicidal thoughts as a result of the sexual assault accusation, and that his academic and athletic career has been irreparably damaged.
If true, his plight deserves as much sympathy as that of a woman who is ignored and harassed when she brings an accusation against a popular campus athlete.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics. She wrote this for Newsday.