Congressman Jared Polis wrote in a column Tuesday that he “misspoke” last week when he suggested colleges should be able to expel students accused of sexual assault even if they’re innocent…
In a piece published online Tuesday by the Daily Camera and on Medium.com, Polis called his remarks “a major gaffe” that “went too far.”
But he did not apologize for arguing last week that colleges may be wise to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard — a lower threshold than criminal courts would use — in deciding whether to punish or expel a student.
For one, that practice is already in place. As Polis notes in his column, the Department of Education required four years ago that schools use a standard based on preponderance of evidence to rid campuses of alleged sexual assailants.
A little more from Rep. Polis’ column published today:
I committed a major gaffe during the back-and-forth exchange with a witness who was advocating for removing the authority of colleges to adjudicate sexual assault cases that happen on their campuses. My words did not convey my beliefs nor the policies I now or have ever supported
During that exchange I went too far by implying that I support expelling innocent students from college campuses, which is something neither I nor other advocates of justice for survivors of sexual assault support. That is not what I meant to say and I apologize for my poor choice of words…
To most people who don’t know much about this issue, it makes sense to solely adjudicate these cases in our criminal justice system, just like we do other crimes…this is a deeply dangerous idea that demonstrates a cursory and superficial understanding of the issue. Ask any sexual assault advocate and they’ll tell you the same thing.
As we noted last Sunday and Rep. Polis tried to clarify after his remarks became controversial late last week, at no point was he suggesting that a lower standard of proof be allowable for criminal convictions of rape. And as Polis makes clear in his column today, colleges already use a lower standard of proof than the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required in criminal proceedings when investigating alleged sexual assaults. Polis explained that his statements were in response to a witness who asserted that law enforcement should handle all sexual assault investigations on campus, instead of the status quo allowing colleges to conduct investigations with a “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.
In the context of Rep. Polis arguing against requiring only the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard be used in sexual assault investigations, his remarks make a bit more sense, but in hindsight it does appear his remarks did more to confound the popular debate over responding to sexual assault allegations than to elucidate it (as he admitted in his apology). It’s just too easy for the criminal justice system’s protection of the rights of the accused to be invoked here, which of course makes Polis look pretty bad–unless you understand that a different standard already applies, and for good reasons. Nobody wants to see innocent people punished, but the issue is not so clear cut that you can say with confidence a strict criminal evidentiary standard is called for in all cases. Sometimes that’s just not what’s needed to get justice.
In the end, we think this episode is a good lesson in why word choice is very, very important.