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Washington Supreme Court ruling may strengthen due process for students: legal groups

‘Court recognized the wisdom of limiting’ university reach into students’ lives, FIRE says

A recent Washington Supreme Court ruling regarding sexual assault has two legal groups hopeful for the future of students’ due process rights.

In its ruling, the state’s highest court held that universities do not have a duty to provide reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harm caused by other students off-campus. The case involved a female student who accused Washington State University of negligence after a male student with a previous record of sexual misconduct raped her off-campus.

While the ruling on the surface is about the scope of the duty of care Washington state universities have toward their students, two higher education legal organizations see it as a potentially wider victory for the due process rights of all students.

“The court recognized the wisdom of limiting the reach of public colleges into the off-campus lives of its students. We should not want educational institutions policing the lives of students 24 hours a day and across the globe,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression told The College Fix.

The justices’ decision noted that Washington State has a special relationship with and duty toward its students, but determined that its “duty is limited to where a student is on campus for school related purposes or participating in a school activity.”

They reasoned that the university’s duty could not extend to off-campus activities because “a university simply has no power to dictate students’ movements off campus and away from the oversight of campus security and administration.”

Edward Bartlett, the president of SAVE, an organization that works to assure fairness and due process in schools, told The Fix that limiting the scope of universities’ involvement in such allegations is a good thing.

“There is a growing awareness that campus disciplinary committees are failing to observe the most basic notions of fairness and due process,” Bartlett said. “Just [recently], a jury in Philadelphia awarded a $15 million decision against Thomas Jefferson University for failing to investigate the claims of a falsely accused faculty member.”

Instead of relying on an expanded university scope of duty, Bartlett said, “Every jurisdiction in this country has a law enforcement system that seeks to strike the right balance to protect the interests of both the accuser and the accused. Allegations that fall outside the jurisdiction of the university should be referred to local law enforcement authorities for investigation.”

Bartlett said because the university disciplinary process is so flawed, “persons who believe in due process should oppose any attempt to expand the scope of Title IX offices to off-campus activities that are not directly supervised by the school.”

FIRE made a similar point, telling The Fix, “There are significant limitations to a university’s authority when it comes to policing off-campus allegations of sexual misconduct,” and “such matters are better left to the criminal justice system.”

The case was brought by a woman at Washington State University who was raped by Thomas Culhane in 2017 when she went to a party at his off-campus apartment, according to the ruling. The university expelled Culhane, and he later was found guilty of second degree rape, the ruling states.

The university received two complaints about sexual misconduct prior to him committing the rape. Culhane was accused of sending electronic sexual messages, and he was accused of putting his hands between a woman’s legs even after being told by her to stop, according to the ruling.

Culhane’s punishment imposed by the university was a suspension of nine days and an assignment to write a paper about his understanding of consent, the ruling states.

The victim sued the university in 2020, alleging it negligently failed to take reasonable care to protect her from the foreseeable actions of Culhane.

However, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against her in its January decision, deciding that “a lack of blame on the victim does not establish blame and duty on a third party. The blame lies on Culhane.”

MORE: Acquitted Yale student can sue rape accuser for defamation: court

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Jack Shields is a student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and a graduate of Texas A&M University. He is also an editor and columnist at Lone Conservative.