In a win for due process on college campuses, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Purdue University violated the 14th Amendment rights of “John Doe,” a college student accused of sexual misconduct.
The accusation was levied by another student, “Jane Doe,” in April 2016, as Purdue has holding its Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Jane “alleged that in November 2015, she was sleeping with John in his room when she woke to him groping her over her clothes without her consent,” the appeals court notes. “Jane told the university that John had engaged in other misconduct as well.”
Jane never filed a formal complaint, but Purdue decided that it was going to investigate the claim. Katherine Sermersheim, Purdue’s dean of students, informed John of the allegations against him in a letter. While the investigation was still underway, John was suspended from participating in the Navy ROTC program and subsequently banned from all buildings where Jane had class, as well as “barred from eating in his usual dining hall because Jane also used it,” the court explains.
“John steadfastly denied Jane’s allegations,” the court adds. But a three-person panel of Purdue’s Advisory Committee on Equity “falsely claimed that he had confessed to Jane’s allegations” and left out key elements of John’s version of events.
That panel decided that John was guilty and gave him a one-year suspension, which caused him to be expelled from ROTC, thereby losing his scholarship and a potential future in the Navy.
John subsequently sued Purdue, saying his rights had been violated: He wasn’t told any of the specific evidence against him, he wasn’t given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or call his own, and the panel decided in Jane’s favor without ever speaking to her. He also alleged that Purdue has violated federal law by “discriminating against him on the basis of sex.”
A lower court ruled that John had not shown sufficient evidence that his rights were violated. But a June 28 decision at the Seventh Circuit—written by Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who has been floated as a potential Supreme Court pick in the past—overruled that decision.
“Purdue’s process fell short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension,” Barrett writes.
The judge points out that “at John’s meeting with the Advisory Committee, two of the three panel members candidly admitted that they had not read the investigative report, which suggests that they decided that John was guilty based on the accusation rather than the evidence.”
Another key factor for the court is that the committee neither met with Jane in person nor received a statement from her. “It is unclear, to say the least, how Sermerheim and the committee could have evaluated Jane’s credibility,” writes Barrett.
As David French notes in National Review, “Judge Barrett’s opinion is a warning shot to campuses in her federal circuit—and, through persuasive authority, to campuses across the nation. Universities mix ideology and adjudication at their own peril.”
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