Colleges Contest Anonymity of Women Suing Over Sexual Assault Cases


Florida A&M University is being sued by a former student who accuses it of failing to properly investigate her rape allegations.CreditCreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times

The former college student said she had been raped three times as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University, twice by students and once by an acquaintance who was on campus regularly.

She withdrew from the university and filed suit, saying that campus officials did not do enough to investigate the claims and protect her from being attacked again and again. As a precaution, she identified herself in public court papers only as S.B.

Her school fired back three times with a demand for the court: Reveal her full name or toss out the case.

For years, students have filed sexual assault complaints under pseudonyms, which allow them to seek justice without shame or fear of being targeted. Universities have generally accepted the practice.

But in two recent lawsuits — S.B.’s case against Florida A&M University and a suit by nine women against Dartmouth College — the schools have demanded that students publicly reveal their identities, going against longstanding legal practice intended to protect plaintiffs in sensitive disputes.

Experts on sexual assault cases say that these demands amount to a newly aggressive stance by universities that face potentially damaging lawsuits, and that they run counter to the spirit of federal civil rights policies. The identities of the women in both cases are known to the university lawyers, but not to the public.

“What you’re seeing in this particular case is real hardball,” said Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer who typically represents men accused of sexual assault. “And it’s still not the way most lawyers or schools handle it. They’re a little bit more gracious about protecting someone who was their student.”

On Wednesday, S.B.’s lawyer sent a letter to more than 40 state legislators objecting to the university’s tactics and asking them to investigate the matter.

Florida A&M, a renowned historically black college in Tallahassee, Fla., said that it was “merely asking for a fair and open trial,” and that this required “that her legal name be provided to jurors at trial.” It said that its demands were in line with those of many other colleges and universities, and that it took all allegations of sexual assault seriously.


Florida A&M has demanded that a student’s lawsuit be dismissed unless the plaintiff’s identity is publicly revealed.CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, women have become bolder about using their names in retellings of traumatic sexual experiences and in sexual assault cases. But many still fear the stigma that may come with going public.

The legal efforts to unmask women in sexual assault cases come as the federal Education Department is in the final stages of reviewing some 120,000 comments about Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed new rules under Title IX, the federal law forbidding sex discrimination. The new rules were intended in part to address criticism that those accused of sexual assault were not given due process.

Florida A&M has tried through two motions to have S.B.’s lawsuit dismissed unless her name is disclosed, and again most recently in an appeal, which is pending.

The university said that allowing S.B. to use her initials makes her appear to be a victim who needs protection, even though that has not been proved in court. It argued that it was only fair for S.B. to be publicly identified because she was publicly identifying the university officials who she said had mishandled her case, and the men who she said had raped her.

The judge, Mark E. Walker of the Northern District of Florida, did not agree. “Outing an alleged rape victim simply because other parties or individuals involved in the lawsuit are not proceeding anonymously serves no legitimate public interest,” he said in his decision on one of Florida A&M’s motions.

S.B.’s lawyer, Michael Dolce, said there was no comparison between the stigma and shame a victim of sexual assault can face and the embarrassment endured by a university official accused of bureaucratic mistakes. The school’s efforts, he added, were intended to intimidate the woman into dropping her suit.

S.B. declined a request to talk about the case on Wednesday, even without using her full name, saying she was “just too afraid,” according to her lawyer.

In what critics saw as a similar legal strategy, Dartmouth has objected to allowing some of the women who are suing it in a sexual assault case to be identified as Jane Does. In that case, the plaintiffs are accusing three professors of turning a human behavior research department into what they call “a 21st-century Animal House,” where they say they were “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped.” Dartmouth has said the lawsuit mischaracterizes its actions.

The university argued in court papers that because some of the six named plaintiffs had sought publicity, granting interviews with news outlets including The New York Times, it did not make sense for the three other plaintiffs to be identified only as Jane Does.

Justin Anderson, a spokesman for Dartmouth, said on Wednesday that its case was different from the Florida A&M case because it involved a class-action lawsuit, where, he said, it was typical to challenge anonymity. He said that protecting the anonymity of the plaintiffs would hamper the university’s ability to determine whether they could represent a class.


Universities have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of their students in Title IX cases, lawyers specializing in sexual assault cases said.CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times

“To compare our approach to Florida A & M’s is apples to oranges,” he said, adding that Dartmouth supported the right of women to file anonymously if they filed as individuals.

The plaintiffs said that at least two of the anonymous women had already suffered from “extreme emotional distress ranging from depression to suicidal thoughts,” and that outing them would only traumatize them more.

“Dartmouth’s objection is a striking departure for a liberal, Ivy League institution that touts itself as being ‘at the forefront of public conversations on women, gender and sexuality issues,’” the plaintiffs said in court papers.

The judge has not ruled on whether real names should be required in the Dartmouth case, and in the meantime, both sides have agreed to mediation.

But the dispute has caused a furor among students and alumni. “The idea that you’re going to out people is so dangerous,” said Ruth Cserr, 53, who graduated in 1988. “I’m just disgusted.”

Diana Whitney, 45, of the Class of 1995, said alumni had been following the case closely and circulating a hashtag, #DartmouthDoBetter. “That’s how we feel every time we see a new legal filing,” Ms. Whitney said.

Several lawyers said that universities had a special responsibility to protect the confidentiality of their students in Title IX cases like these.

Mr. Dolce, S.B.’s lawyer, said that it was hypocritical for the university to allow confidentiality when a sexual assault is reported, but not when the university is being sued. Florida A&M “in no uncertain terms told her, ‘We are going to protect your identity,’” he said.

Florida A&M students said on Wednesday that disclosing the identities of anonymous plaintiffs posed a safety issue.

“You are going to out her to the public, which includes people who are against survivors,” said Aiyana Ishmael, 20, a student who said she had interviewed students about sexual violence for an assignment last year. “It feels like she is being attacked after the fact.”

Maya Porter, 19, a junior who works with Planned Parenthood Generation Action, a national campus advocacy organization, said that people did not realize the psychological harm inflicted by outing victims. “Unless a victim volunteers their name,” she said, “it should not be used.”

Audra Burch and Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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