Why This Campus Rape Victim Is The One In Trouble
CHAPEL HILL—A North Carolina student who filed a Title IX federal complaint against her school has been charged with Honor Code violations that could lead to her expulsion, which she claims are in retaliation for speaking out against the way officials handled an investigation into her reported sexual assault.
Landen Gambill, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, wrote in a widely-shared Facebook post that she had been charged with displaying "disruptive or intimidating behavior" and “adversely affect[ing]” the man who allegedly raped her, despite having never named him publicly.
Here's Gambill's Facebook post:
The message, Gambill said, was clear: Advocate for sexual assault survivors on campus, and you will be punished.
“The last thing I expected was to be re-victimized, but also to be accused for speaking out, solely because I was making this campus an uncomfortable place for my rapist,” Gambill said.
Gambill’s Facebook post quickly exploded across the social web, with hundreds of re-posts, Tweets, and Tumblr shares building a wave of momentum that put the UNC administration on the defensive in a matter of hours.
UNC officials issued an official response to the brewing outrage, declaring that the administration was not involved with the charges brought against Gambill, and that the responsibility of the charges fell entirely on the student Attorney Generals of the school's Honor Court.
“The student Attorney Generals have the authority to make decisions about cases considered by the Court independent of campus administrators,” UNC administrators wrote in the statement, released Monday. “Given that these charging decisions are made by student Attorney Generals and not by campus administrators, a claim of retaliation by the University would be without merit.”
Fatima Goss Graves, the vice president for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center, says the university is just trying to distance itself from the controversy.
“The university is responsible for what happens in these proceedings,” Graves told Campus Progress. “It can’t just delegate this to students. If there are concerns about the process in those proceedings, the university has a duty to ensure that it is a fair process.”
Furthermore, UNC’s assertion that a strict segregation exists between the administration and the Honor Court seems to contradict the university’s own Honor Code, which states that the Honor Court works closely with the Judicial Programs Officer, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Chancellor, and Chair of the Faculty.
The Judicial Programs Officer, according to the Honor Code, is supposed to “provide reports, monitor data, evaluate and apprise the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, the Committee on Student Conduct, and other University officers of matters regarding student conduct and the Honor System.” The Code also states that "the Chancellor remains solely responsible for all matters of student discipline," meaning that the administration is not only tied to the proceedings against Gambill, it is also liable for the verdict and any resulting penalties.
UNC’s problems with handling sexual assault cases began years before this incident, with numerous complaints stemming from the way rape charges were handled by the Honor Court, which is run by students. The Honor Court was originally conceived to handle plagiarism charges and, experts said, is likely undertrained to deal with sexual offenses.
“The original thinking was, since our student honor system is handling these other kinds of cases, then they should also handle sexual assault,” Melinda Manning, assistant dean of students at UNC, told Inside Higher Ed last year. “It’s after going through all these cases that then we realized, maybe it wasn’t for the best.”
Allegations subsequently surfaced that the Office of University Counsel, Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls, and Vice Chancellor Winston Crisp pressured Manning to under-report the number of sexual assault reports over the course of several years, eventually resulting in her resignation.
UNC’s troubles reached a boiling point in January, when a group of survivors, including Gambill, banded together to file an Office of Civil Rights complaint against UNC for violating the rights of sexual assault victims. Just ten days later, student Attorney General Elizabeth Ireland emailed Gambill to let her know that she was being investigated for a possible violation of the Honor Code.
But by charging Gambill with an Honor Code violation, the UNC administration could be in violation of several federal laws that led survivors to file the complaint in the first place, including the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Punishing rape victims by speaking out about their own rape fosters an intense atmosphere of sex discrimination, experts said, and fails to provide an equitable learning environment for all students.
“They are complete violations of the First Amendment,” said Tim Longest, co-director of the SAFER Carolina campaign, referring to the alleged Honor Code violations. “We would like to encourage the Honor Court to drop the charges against Landen Gambill, which are egregious.”
Advocates also argue that the charges call into question the university’s commitment to upholding the Clery Act, which requires universities to report all instances of assault. In Gambill’s original post, she recalled an exchange with the Student Attorney General in a preliminary Honor Court hearing.
“I asked their representative whether by saying I was raped I could have violated the Honor Code,” Gambill wrote. “And her answer was yes.”
That response conflicts with the university’s stated commitment to encourage the timely reporting of assaults. If true, this would indicate a clear violation of a university’s obligation to both report all available data and create an environment supportive for victims under the Cleary Act.
Finally, the charges could also violate Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prevents public universities from discriminating based on sex. This law was initially used primarily to fund women’s athletics, but changed after Alexander v. Yale, when students argued that a hostile sexual environment that passively allows rape and other assaults falls under sex discrimination. This interpretation was accepted by the courts in 1980, and stands today as a tool for women to beat back against environments saturated with sex discrimination at universities. Intimidating a survivor from speaking out about sexual assault by threatening expulsion flies in the face of the law.
“An institution cannot retaliate against someone for trying to assert their rights under Title IX,” said Graves, of the National Women's Law Center. “If a university … retaliates against a student, basically to intimidate that student from continuing to file her complaint, that could be both additional harassment and retaliation, all of which is illegal under Title IX."
In response to Gambill’s charges, student leaders at UNC gathered late Tuesday evening and invited the student population for a discussion regarding the university’s treatment of survivors.
“This is a pattern of the way survivors have been treated, not just at UNC,” Gambill said to the nearly 300 students who turned up despite soggy weather and blustery winds. “It’s a sad time when the prevailing idea is that it’s worse to be accused of rape then to be actually raped.”
Longest, who also spoke at the gathering, called on students to hold administrators responsible for the incident, and to work with the Honor Court to maintain the integrity of the university.
“The way the university handles things, every student is Landen Gambill,” said Longest, who also spoke at the event. “Every student has to answer to a system that re-victimizes and re-traumatizes victims.”
At the gathering, Gambill thanked her supporters and allies. But she also asked them to remain focused on how to hold the university accountable.
“That’s my story right now,” she concluded. “Obviously it’s wrong and it’s unfair, but it’s an example of how this university sees survivors as a threat.”
Jenn Nowicki is a reporter for Generation Progress.