In a controversial legal case that has sparked extensive discourse regarding the equitable treatment of sexual assault allegations on college campuses, a former student of Yale University is challenging the prevailing practices employed by universities across the United States when addressing accusations of sexual misconduct. His narrative revolves around two distinct hearings, disparate outcomes, and a consequential defamation lawsuit with the potential to redefine the protocols associated with Title IX.
The student found himself facing allegations of rape subsequent to attending a Halloween gathering in 2018. During the ensuing proceedings at Yale, Saifullah Khan’s accuser presented her statement to a university panel via teleconference. Khan, along with his legal representative, were not permitted to be physically present in the same room as the panel, nor were they afforded the opportunity to cross-examine the accuser. Instead, they were relegated to a separate room, where they received her testimony via a speakerphone. As a result, Khan was ultimately expelled from the institution.
However, Khan’s criminal trial unfolded in a markedly distinct manner. His legal counsel was able to conduct a thorough cross-examination of the accuser, raising doubts about various aspects of her testimony, including her attire, alcohol consumption, and text messages. To the surprise of many, Khan was acquitted of the charges leveled against him after a mere three hours of deliberation.
The incongruity between these two hearings prompted Khan to file a defamation lawsuit against his accuser, thereby challenging the established norms governing how universities address cases of sexual assault. Ordinarily, such a lawsuit would encounter significant obstacles owing to the absolute immunity traditionally extended to witnesses in quasi-judicial hearings across many states. However, the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling in June paved the way for Khan’s defamation lawsuit, as it determined that the Yale hearing had failed to adhere to due process, particularly in terms of the ability to cross-examine witnesses.
While this legal decision holds relevance exclusively within the confines of Connecticut, its reverberations have resonated throughout institutions of higher learning across the nation. College administrators are presently in the process of reassessing their disciplinary hearing procedures, apprehensive about the prospect of defamation lawsuits being brought against witnesses.
This case has intensified the ongoing debate concerning how colleges should navigate allegations of sexual assault on campus while striving to maintain equitable treatment for all parties involved. Title IX, the federal education law governing such cases, has witnessed a fluctuation in guidelines across different administrations.
During the Obama era, the guidance discouraged the practice of cross-examination, while the Trump administration mandated it. The anticipated revisions to Title IX by the Biden administration may potentially revert to the Obama-era approach, which permits cross-examination to be discretionary.
However, the looming specter of defamation lawsuits akin to Khan’s may act as a deterrent for survivors of sexual assault, dissuading them from coming forward. They may be confronted with the challenging dilemma of either forgoing cross-examination, potentially exposing themselves to defamation claims, or subjecting themselves to intense scrutiny during the hearings.
Advocates for women’s rights contend that cross-examination can be an intimidating and retraumatizing experience for victims. They argue that the existing procedures already encompass due-process rights, such as the ability to respond to investigator reports and submit written queries to the hearing panel. It is worth noting that the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling did not render a verdict on the merits of Khan’s defamation case; however, it underscored the viewpoint that colleges may be ill-equipped to effectively manage accusations of rape.
While some assert that cross-examination is indispensable for safeguarding fairness, others posit that it may not be efficacious in unveiling the truth. Critics maintain that it frequently bestows advantages upon individuals with formidable legal representation and could potentially discourage survivors from reporting incidents.
Khan’s defamation lawsuit, presently pending in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, remains shrouded in uncertainty concerning its final outcome. Legal experts suggest that it could accumulate substantial legal costs and possibly protract the proceedings, potentially serving as a deterrent for others contemplating similar legal actions. Khan maintains that his overarching objective is to abolish campus-based Title IX hearings—a mission he shares with other students facing allegations of sexual misconduct.