May 29, 2019

The former college student said she had been raped three times as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University, twice by students and once by an acquaintance who was on campus regularly.

She withdrew from the university and filed suit, saying that campus officials did not do enough to investigate the claims and protect her from being attacked again and again. As a precaution, she identified herself in public court papers only as S.B.

Her school fired back three times with a demand for the court: Reveal her full name or toss out the case.

For years, students have filed sexual assault complaints under pseudonyms, which allow them to seek justice without shame or fear of being targeted. Universities have generally accepted the practice.

But in two recent lawsuits — S.B.’s case against Florida A&M University and a suit by nine women against Dartmouth College — the schools have demanded that students publicly reveal their identities, going against longstanding legal practice intended to protect plaintiffs in sensitive disputes.

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 identities of the women in both cases are known to the university lawyers, but not to the public.

. . .

On Wednesday, S.B.’s lawyer sent a letter to more than 40 state legislators objecting to the university’s tactics and asking them to investigate the matter.

Florida A&M, a renowned historically black college in Tallahassee, Fla., said that it was “merely asking for a fair and open trial,” and that this required “that her legal name be provided to jurors at trial.” It said that its demands were in line with those of many other colleges and universities, and that it took all allegations of sexual assault seriously.

. . .

Florida A&M has tried through two motions to have S.B.’s lawsuit dismissed unless her name is disclosed, and again most recently in an appeal, which is pending.

The university said that allowing S.B. to use her initials makes her appear to be a victim who needs protection, even though that has not been proved in court. It argued that it was only fair for S.B. to be publicly identified because she was publicly identifying the university officials who she said had mishandled her case, and the men who she said had raped her.

The judge, Mark E. Walker of the Northern District of Florida, did not agree. “Outing an alleged rape victim simply because other parties or individuals involved in the lawsuit are not proceeding anonymously serves no legitimate public interest,” he said in his decision on one of Florida A&M’s motions.

S.B.’s lawyer, Michael Dolce, said there was no comparison between the stigma and shame a victim of sexual assault can face and the embarrassment endured by a university official accused of bureaucratic mistakes. The school’s efforts, he added, were intended to intimidate the woman into dropping her suit.

S.B. declined a request to talk about the case on Wednesday, even without using her full name, saying she was “just too afraid,” according to her lawyer.

. . .

Several lawyers said that universities had a special responsibility to protect the confidentiality of their students in Title IX cases like these.

Mr. Dolce, S.B.’s lawyer, said that it was hypocritical for the university to allow confidentiality when a sexual assault is reported, but not when the university is being sued. Florida A&M “in no uncertain terms told her, ‘We are going to protect your identity,’” he said.

The complete article can be accessed here.

The letter sent to Florida legislators can be accessed here.