A Christian college in Oklahoma is the first school in the U.S. to sue the Obama administration over its five-year-old policy controlling how schools police sexual assault.
According to a suit filed by Oklahoma Wesleyan University (OKWU), an evangelical school with about 1,200 students, the administration’s sexual assault policies are illegally imposing regulations that drive schools to wrongly suspend or expel students based on flimsy evidence.
Sexual assault policies at U.S. colleges has been governed since 2011 by a “Dear Colleague” letter sent out by the Department of Education. The letter states that, according to the department’s interpretation of Title IX, schools must adjudicate all sexual assault cases using a low “preponderance of the evidence” standard, where the accused is found guilty if it is determined they are more likely than not to be guilty. The letter abolishes another, tougher standard, “clear and convincing evidence,” which was in use at many schools prior to the letter’s publication.
The Obama administration has also pressured schools to more aggressively handle alleged assaults by launching federal investigations of schools suspected of being lax in policing themselves. More than a hundred schools have been investigated at one point or another for possible Title IX violations. The stakes are high, as the penalty for failing to follow Title IX is a total loss of all federal funding, which would be a deathblow for many schools.
Now, in its new lawsuit, OKWU targets the entire structure of the Obama administration’s effort, claiming its regulations are both illegal and destructive.
“A growing number of innocent students have been trampled in the wake of these new requirements, found responsible for serious charges based often on the flimsiest of evidence,” the suit reads.
Current federal law requires all new regulations to be announced in advance and allowed to undergo a period of public comment and review before a final version is enacted. But for its sex assault rules, the Obama administration simply announced that it would be interpreting the decades-old Title IX law in a completely new way. OKWU’s suit argues that the administration used its “Dear Colleague” letter to illegally create a new regulation without going through the proper channels.
OKWU is the first college to overtly challenge the administration on sexual assault, but it isn’t standing entirely alone. It is joining the lawsuit of an unnamed former student at the University of Virginia, who claims he was found responsible for sexual assault purely because of the Obama administration’s pressure. Both lawsuits are being backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus civil liberties group that has fiercely opposed the administration’s recent Title IX actions.
“FIRE has spoken with numerous campus administrators nationwide who express frustration that the DCL has impeded their ability to afford accused students due process,” the group said in a statement announcing the suit. “OKWU, however, has distinguished itself by being the only university in the nation willing to stand up in defense of institutional autonomy and the principles of fundamental fairness and due process.”