October 27, 2000 | Commentary on Education
Say you're accused of a sexual offense and you're forbidden to confront your accuser, have an attorney present or cross-examine witnesses. Where are you?
D) Columbia University
If your final answer was "D," you're right, but don't expect $1 million from Regis.
Instead, you might want use your lifeline to call Columbia and tell its administrators to get a clue about constitutional rights. Columbia recently adopted a new sexual misconduct policy designed to end what supporters call the "bureaucratic red tape" of its old policy. You know-those meddlesome procedures that allowed students accused of date rape and similar offenses to face their accusers, question witnesses and have lawyers present during the proceedings.
In other words, the basic legal rights the rest of us take for granted. Ladies and gentlemen, this is more than just another story about campus thought police run amok. This is about scrapping an important part of civilization-due process of law-in the name of political correctness and "sensitivity." The activists who championed the new policy say they did it to remove procedures that allegedly make it too hard to prosecute the serious crime of sexual assault. But by eliminating rights of the accused, the activists are not taking the crime seriously enough-especially when they define sexual misconduct in vague terms such as non-consensual physical contact that the accused "was aware or should have been aware" would cause alarm. Realize, too, that we're not talking about some third-tier institute of higher learning whose second-rate faculty might not know better. This is Columbia, an Ivy League school that every year graduates scores of future leaders in business, politics, science, law and journalism.
Yet this isn't the first time Columbia officials have let political correctness cloud their judgment. Legal scholar George P. Fletcher landed himself in hot water last year when a question he wrote on a criminal-law exam offended some female students. Despite the fact that it was a valid query based on actual case law, Columbia's law school dean huffed that Fletcher's action raised the possibility of "liability and unlawfulness." Ironically, the countries mentioned above-Iraq, Iran and Cuba-all have legal provisions (observed with a wink, to be sure) allowing people accused of crimes to have attorneys present. Of course, these countries are hardly outposts of human freedom, but it appears that the people who live in these Third World dictatorships have more legal rights than students at a certain university in New York.
So far, others in academia are spurning Columbia's example. New York University, a quick cab ride from Columbia, considered amending its sexual misconduct policy in the wake of Columbia's changes, but kept it in place. A school administrator said that NYU kept the policy in order to preserve "fundamental fairness" for both "the accuser and the accused," evidently a foreign concept at Columbia. As a private university, Columbia has more freedom than a public school does to set its own guidelines. Its new sexual misconduct policy would have been ruled unconstitutional long ago at Ohio State or George Mason University. So why is Columbia willing to trash its stature as a liberal arts institution and trample the very rights it's supposed to be teaching? At this rate, its students will soon have grounds for an educational malpractice suit.
Edwin Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally by the Associated Press.