Commentary Violence

The ‘Safe’ Campus Act Is Anything But

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr

Conservatives are, yet again, working to expand the unchecked power of police and increase our reliance on a violent criminal justice system. And this time they’re doing it with a bill that would have devastating consequences for rape survivors.

Even as we’ve witnessed unprecedented national conversation around police brutality this year, conservatives are, yet again, working to expand the unchecked power of police and increase our reliance on a violent criminal justice system. And this time they’re doing it with a bill that would have devastating consequences for rape survivors.

This summer, Representatives Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Kay Granger (R-TX) introduced the Safe Campus Act, a bill that would, among other requirements, preclude universities from disciplining students who sexually assault their classmates, unless the victims go to the police first. Their so-called Safe Campus Act is actually a misnomer: The bill, which is currently in the House Education and Workforce Committee, would make campuses dramatically less safe than they already are.

Very few survivors, particularly those on college campuses, choose to report sexual violence to the police. Many victims are assaulted by friends or intimate partners and, for many of these students, turning those individuals over to the cops isn’t a viable option. For others who are undocumented, gender nonconforming, or of color, going to the police often means risking suffering more violence, like deportation, police brutality, or criminalization themselves. For still others, struggling to stay in school in the wake of debilitating sexual violence is more than a full-time job; it isn’t possible to withstand the burden of a lengthy public trial. And yet more survivors know what the Safe Campus Act authors apparently don’t: that the criminal system almost never delivers justice to survivors who want to see their attacker found guilty or incarcerated. Despite the confident assertions by supporters of this bill that only the police are qualified to handle sexual assault, only three in every 100 rapists ever spend a day in jail because police and prosecutors fail to properly investigate cases or choose not to bring charges against an assailant. Survivors understandably fear retaliation for trying to press charges against perpetrators who will, most likely, remain in their communities.

The Safe Campus Act would trample Title IX, the decades-old civil rights law that requires equal access to educational opportunities to students of all genders. Because being raped by the guy who sits next to you in math class creates a barrier to your ability to learn, Title IX requires schools who receive federal funding to address gender violence as a civil rights violation and to remedy its effects, in order to ensure all students can access their right to education. That can mean offering a victim free counseling services, moving them out of a class shared with their attacker, or providing an extension on a paper due the week after the assault. It can also mean disciplining their assailant or removing them from campus—but under the Safe Campus Act, this would be forbidden unless the survivor goes to the police.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The Safe Campus Act’s proponents claim that universities aren’t equipped to discipline students for rape because it’s a criminal act. But schools regularly hold students accountable for all sorts of disciplinary violations that, in a court, would be considered crimes: drug possession, theft, racial harassment, physical assault. Sexual violence isn’t exceptional. These are all common violations—some with real human victims—that schools investigate and address, regardless of whether the victim calls the cops.

The Safe Campus Act’s added reporting burden for rape victims is of a piece with antiquated rape laws from the 1970s and 1980s—laws that required prompt complaint, utmost resistance from victims, and independent corroboration. They made proving rape more burdensome than any other crime. It’s not hard to figure out the reason for the similarity. As my friend Dana Bolger said when quoted in a piece for Vice, “It’s clear that what’s animating the bill’s authors’ concern here isn’t the violence per se but the people who typically experience it—women—and the special skepticism our society reserves for them ….  Why else would we be okay with schools punishing students who commit physical assault but not students who commit sexual assault?” In other words, this bill reinforces the idea that victims—usually women—are hysterical liars, not to be trusted with our own experiences unless we can secure the backing of law enforcement.

But the bill isn’t just sexist; it’s dangerous too. As deputy director of Know Your IX, I hear every day from student survivors who say that, were the police further enmeshed in the campus process, they’d report to no one at all. A survey of student survivors that Know Your IX conducted with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence confirmed that further involving the police will dramatically decrease reporting to schools, leaving perpetrators free to roam campuses with impunity.

I suspect that the Safe Campus Act’s supporters don’t care much about those consequences.

The bill is backed by a disturbing coalition of supporters, many of whom are far-right and have proven anti-woman agendas. Two of the Safe Campus Act’s sponsors voted against the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization in 2013, and all three voted to restrict women’s reproductive health care and defund Planned Parenthood in 2015. Two prominent national fraternity organizations publicly endorsed the bill in a joint letter and are advocating heavily for its passage. And the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties organization that often advocates for accused rapists and pushes against policies that make it easier to report harassment and violence, has publicly lauded the bill, calling for its passage. When questioned by Congressman Jeffries during a recent House committee hearing about police abuse and skepticism of rape victims, Joseph Cohn, FIRE’s legislative and policy director, asserted that there “is no way to build up more trust with police than to work with them.” Could any comment be more seemingly oblivious to the national conversation around police brutality and mistreatment?

In contrast, advocacy groups and service providers who work directly on issues of sexual violence have unanimously spoken out against the SCA. In statements provided to the Huffington Post, 28 victim’s advocacy groups voiced strong opposition to the bill, including my organization, Know Your IX, and the Victim’s Rights Law Center, the American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Law Center, and a number of student activist groups. John Faubert, of the One in Four campaign, called the bill “colossally stupid legislation.” At the time of writing, more than 9,000 people had signed a petition started by a student survivor, calling on legislators to reject the proposal. The bill is also opposed by most higher education advocacy groups, including the American Association of Universities, the large lobbying arm of the association of private universities.

A strong alternative to the Safe Campus Act is the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) Campus Sexual Violence Act, a bipartisan effort introduced by Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA). HALT would increase federal enforcement of civil rights laws like Title IX and ensure that schools have fair and effective disciplinary systems in place. Unlike the SCA, HALT recognizes that while rape is a crime (and its victims should be able to report to the police if they so choose), it is also a civil rights violation, which schools—not the cops—are best positioned to handle.

The Safe Campus Act would create unconscionable and blatantly sexist barriers to reporting gender violence, making campuses less safe as a result. It’s a slap in the face to survivors who have shared their personal stories and organized tirelessly for better school policies. And, in a year that’s seen national attention to the rampant criminalization and police abuse of people of color—particularly gender violence victims—it’s painfully ignorant of the failures of the criminal justice system. Students need more and better options for reporting gender violence, not fewer. We must hold our legislators to a higher standard and demand real action to end sexual and dating violence on campuses.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.