Several weeks ago, we blogged about a lawsuit filed by a current student at University of Oregon – “Jane Doe” – against the university and its men’s basketball coach, Dana Altman, after the school mishandled the investigation into a sexual assault perpetrated by a member of the school’s basketball team. The victim’s lawsuit alleges that the school recruited the man who raped her even after it had knowledge that the individual had been accused of sexual assault at his previous college (Providence University).
The victim also alleged that the school unlawfully obtained and reviewed her medical and therapy records last year. Earlier this month, UO admitted the truth of this allegation, but claimed that accessed Doe’s records lawfully, in preparation for the lawsuit – which, notably, was filed after the University had reviewed her therapy records.
On February 9th, the school filed a counterclaim against the victim, in which it alleged that Doe’s allegations were false, in that it was unaware of past allegations against the player. The school also alleged that Doe’s claims were “frivolous” and “unreasonable,” and therefore concluded that Doe should be required to pay the university’s legal fees. The school advanced this demand in spite of its $627 Million endowment, which places it amongst the top 20% wealthiest Universities in the United States.
In support of its argument, the school claimed that “publication of false allegations about Oregon’s handling of a report of an alleged sexual assault creates a very real risk that survivors will wrongly be discouraged from reporting sexual assaults and sexual harassment to Oregon, in direct contravention of the goals of both Title IX and Oregon.” The University said Doe’s allegations “threaten to harm not only Oregon and Altman but also all sexual assault survivors in Oregon’s campus community.”
The irony of the school’s position cannot be overstated. In deciding to sue its own student – who was the victim of an egregious crime – and in making this argument, University of Oregon willfully ignored the myriad benefits attendant to a survivor’s ability to enforce his or her rights under the law.
The University’s position sparked campus-wide outrage, and resulted in an online petition demanding that the school stop suing rape survivors for coming forward with their claims. In response to this outcry, on February 26, 2015 the school dropped its counterclaim against the victim, though it will nonetheless continue to defend against the victims’ suit.
Although UO is not the first educational defendant to try and avoid liability through victim-blaming discourse, this particular argument is perhaps the most offensive example of such a tactic in recent history. Furthermore, the school’s position is nothing short of hypocritical, as counterclaiming against a victim can hardly be said to encourage reporting of sexual violence. In fact, it does precisely the opposite.
Many sexual assault survivors opt to pursue civil suits in addition to or as an alternative to a criminal proceeding, and do so for a variety of valid reasons. Civil suits against institutions – such as Jane Doe’s suit, here – not only ensure institutional accountability, but also advance and protect the rights of all persons within society by requiring these entities to take proactive steps to prevent similar atrocities in the future.
Likewise, such suits operate to provide victims with a means of redress where otherwise there may be none. This, in turn, encourages victims to report assaults and harassment, and helps achieve the laudable goals of both Title IX and Oregon law. Civil suits are therefore both necessary and effective tools in the fight against injustice.
When powerful, institutional defendants attempt to discourage victims of crime from coming forward with their claims through victim-blaming tactics, survivors are further traumatized by the response, and future victims may second guess their means and opportunity to seek redress for the harms they suffered. This is especially true when the defendant in question is an institution who would otherwise be tasked with preventing such injury in the first place.
The University’s decision to drop its suit against the victim does not automatically undo the damage done to the survivor, the members of the UO community, and all sexual assault victims across the nation as a result of its actions. Hopefully, however, Jane Doe’s suit will shed light on not only the University’s mishandling of her sexual assault, and also prevent the use of such harmful arguments in the future.