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Anonymity For Sexual Assault Victims A Matter Of Intense Debate On U.S. Campuses

Sexual victims traditionally have the safety net of anonymity when they bring lawsuits against colleges following sexual assault, but this protection could be removed in one fell swoop if two institutions have their way. In two cases (S.B. vs Florida A&M University and another featuring nine plaintiffs against Dartmouth College), universities are demanding that victims publicly reveal their identities. The New York Times reports, “Experts on sexual assault cases say that these demands amount to a newly aggressive stance by universities that face potentially damaging lawsuits, and that they run counter to the spirit of federal civil rights policies.” The names of the victims, they note, are already known to the lawyers of both parties, so why do they need to be made available to the public?

Arguments For Anonymity

S.B.’s lawyer s recently sent a letter to over 40 state legislators, asking them to investigate the tactics being used by universities embroiled in sexual assault lawsuits. Important points made in the letter include the assertion that exposing the plaintiff’s identity was “strictly intended to intimidate our client into either dropping her lawsuit or settling for a nominal amount.” A sexual abuse lawyer will often wish to keep his/her client’s name completely secret in order to protect his or her mental health. S.B.’s lawyers gave another key argument: by publishing a victim’s name, future students many be more reticent to report any sexual assault they may face. Finally, revealing a plaintiff’s name goes against the intent of Florida law, which protects victim anonymity.

Listening To The Victim

When Chanel Miller, the subject of one of America’s most widely reported sexual assault cases, decided to reveal her identity and tell her story last month, she explained why secrecy is an important form of protection. She brought a case against her aggressor – Brock Turner – in 2015, breaking her silence in an interview with 60 Minutes. “My dream is to write children’s books. I felt no parent was going to want me as a role model if I was just the discarded junk, half-naked body behind a dumpster.” Today, she is stronger, and she yearns to find beauty in life, embracing her natural talent as a communicator to let other victims know they are not alone. Still, it is important that she was at no point ‘outed’ on a large scale. Today she stands proud, as she heals and feels strong enough to tell her story.

What About The Anonymity Of The Defendant?

Debate also continues to run rife across the globe regarding whether or not defendants in sexual assault cases should also be afforded anonymity. The most famous proponent of this argument is Cliff Richard, who was accused of a sex crime and saw his name devastated by the media and law enforcement. Critics of this view argue that the campaign peddles false and dangerous myths that complainants (the majority of whom are women) lie about rape and sexual assault. They also note that naming suspects encourages more people who have been assaulted by the same person to come forward. Currently, sexual offences are among the most under-reported crimes. Some legal experts additionally argue that equality between rape defendants and complainants is not valid, and that rape should be treated no differently from any other serious crime.

The debate on anonymity is testimony to the limitations of even the most sophisticated legal systems. Victims whose names have been publicized have seen their lives turn upside-down, sometimes to the point that they have had to leave their current residence and change their identity. Their habits and past have been called into question, as has their honesty. This is an especially pressing danger in the current day and age, when social media invites opinions and direct messages in viral proportions. Whether or not defendants deserve the same level of protection is debatable, but currently, the petition backed by Cliff Richard has its fair share of backers.