Thursday, May 15, 2014

Shocking injustice at Columbia University: a student is fired from the school blog on the basis of an unfounded accusation

The editors of Bwog, the online blog counterpart to the Blue and White magazine at Columbia University, New York City, have "asked [a] staffer to permanently and immediately resign" based on an anonymous tip that unspecified allegations have been made that the staff member "violated Columbia University’s Gender Based Misconduct policy . . . ." The editors claim the "decision was not made lightly . . . ."

You see, at Columbia University, some women are writing the names of alleged rapists on bathroom walls. We assume that the fired staffer's name was scribbled on some bathroom wall by some unidentified woman using a toilet.

But surely, that's not sufficient reason to fire him, is it?  Since the "decision was not made lightly," surely the editors arrived at it only after verifying the accusation by considering credible evidence and concluding that the staffer likely committed the alleged offense, right?

Ah, no, not exactly. Here is what the editors said: "Our decision does not reflect a position on the innocence or guilt of this former staff member, nor does it comment on, take a position on, support, implicitly or explicitly, any allegations of fact or law made against such person." (Read the editors' statement here.)

The import is as clear as it is chilling: the editors' decision to dismiss the staffer had nothing whatsoever to do with the merits, validity, or strength of the allegations lobbed at the staffer, or with the staffer's guilt or innocence. The staffer deserves to be fired, the editors think, because of an unfounded accusation that the editors of Bwog haven't been able, or haven't bothered, to verify or confirm.

How do the editors of Bwog justify this unconscionable decision? With a non sequitur, of course: ". . . allowing this staffer to continue his affiliation with Bwog would have tacitly endorsed a rape culture we so firmly stand against." The firing "is meant to reflect our zero-tolerance policy toward rape culture and sexual assault."

If you are doing a double-take over that other-worldly rationale, as we are, let's make sure we understand: they had to fire a staffer who, for all they know, might just be innocent -- or else they would be endorsing "rape culture." Presumably, "rape culture" refers to a culture that fails to punish young men on the basis of unfounded accusations.

But wait, it gets even weirder: "To have allowed this staff member to remain a part of Bwog would have . . . been a conflict of interest, hampering our ability to accurately report on campus activism."

Did you get that? It would be a conflict of interest to treat this staffer fairly.

It is Salem, 1692, at Columbia University. And somewhere, Senator Joseph McCarthy is nodding his head with approval.

The fact is, the editors could have stood firmly against sexual violence while also upholding the staffer's right to be treated fairly. The one has nothing to do with the other. It's not an either/or proposition.

In addition, the editors could have used the unfounded accusation as an occasion to affirm their fidelity to principles of fairness and due process.

Instead, they kowtowed to the mob and gussied up their decision to fire the staffer by claiming "conflict of interest."

Down the rabbit hole we tumble.

The impulse to eradicate sexual violence is a noble one, but too often it is animated by a disturbing hostility to the rights of the presumptively innocent. The injustice of rape can't be fought by piling more injustice atop it. Sadly, that's exactly what the editors of Bwog have done. They've allied themselves with a disturbing tradition of seeking "justice" for rape victims by resorting to extra-judicial or even vigilante means. The hanging trees of the Old South were silent witnesses to the most virulent expression of this tradition, but it continues to manifest itself today in a multitude of more subtle, but still unconscionable, ways. It scarcely seems necessary in the 21st Century to assert that men accused of serious criminality should not be punished, and their good names should not be sullied, on the basis of unfounded accusations without affording them an opportunity to fairly defend themselves. But political correctness trumps fairness at Columbia University.

Professor Alan Dershowitz once wrote: "As one civil-liberties lawyer, who is concerned about the sometimes vigilante attitude toward accused rapists, puts it: 'Some people regard rape as so heinous an offense that they would not even regard innocence as a defense.'"  We appreciate that it is difficult for young women and men in college to buck peer pressure on such an emotional and politicized issue. But that is not a sufficient excuse to get it wrong on an issue this important.

The fact that the editors' puerile-to-the-point-of-shocking rationale is taken seriously in some quarters tells us how far we've strayed from rational discourse on these issues.

Every civilized society must strive to eradicate heinous criminality by punishing offenders, but it also must insure that the innocent aren't punished with them. This action by the editors at Bwog is more evidence that the latter concern is too often absent from the public discourse.  The editors are disgracing a once-great institution.