Advocates, attorneys say CT court ruling could have chilling effect on campus sex assault victims
Attorneys and advocates for sexual assault survivors say a Friday ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court allowing an alleged perpetrator to sue his accuser for defamation could discourage victims from reporting their attacks.
The Connecticut court ruled 7-0 that because former Yale student Saifullah Khan had fewer rights to defend himself in university proceedings than he would in criminal court, the rape accuser can't benefit fully from immunity granted to witnesses in criminal proceedings.
It's one of the few state court rulings on the topic in any U.S. court and could be cited widely in future cases, legal experts said. It ruled that Jane Doe, the pseudonym she used in court proceedings, was not immune from liability for statements she made to Yale investigators accusing fellow student Khan of raping her in her dorm room in October 2015.
Khan was acquitted in criminal court, but expelled in 2018 after the Yale investigation affirmed Doe’s claims.
Meghan Scanlon is president and CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one of 15 organizations that signed onto an amicus brief in the case before the state Supreme Court. She said she found the court’s decision “disappointing” and feared it would have the effect of discouraging assault survivors from coming forward.
“Oftentimes perpetrators will use the court system” as a way to further traumatize victims, Scanlon said. “It’s very common.”
Naomi Shatz, an attorney at the Boston law firm of Zalkind, Duncan and Bernstein who represents students on both sides of campus sexual misconduct cases, said the ruling – and media coverage of it – could dissuade victims from reporting.
“I think anytime you have a case like this in the news – I think we saw this with the Johnny Depp case – it prompts people to consider filing defamation claims against other people. And I think that's obviously a very scary proposition for people making complaints of sexual misconduct, because already it is not an easy process to go through,” Shatz said. “And then to be worried that you might get sued for defamation, it certainly can have a chilling effect.”
Shatz stressed that the court’s decision only concerned the particular investigatory process in place at Yale in 2018 and not necessarily university proceedings at all schools, nor even Yale’s current process.
Reached by phone Monday, Khan’s attorney, Norm Pattis, said his client was “thrilled” by the ruling.
“I don’t think Mr. Khan is looking to hurt [Doe],” Pattis said, “but he definitely wants justice from Yale.”
Doe's attorney, James Sconzo, declined to comment Monday, as did a Yale spokesperson.
The ruling also is significant because the federal government is slated in October to change regulations covering how colleges must handle sexual misconduct cases. The Biden administration will be undoing changes made by the Trump administration in 2020 that allow for cross-examination of accusers and other requirements.
In the same ruling, however, the Connecticut court said college students who report being sexually assaulted deserve some immunity for their statements to school investigators, even if the proceedings are not quasi-judicial. But that immunity would only apply if the statements are not malicious. It is the first time the state court has addressed the issue.
The court said Jane Doe in the Yale case could eventually cite that kind of immunity to defend against Khan's lawsuit, but cannot now because the lawsuit is in the early stages.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story has been updated.