The identity of rape victims is often a closely guarded secret in court records. But when a former college student, identified only as S.B., filed a lawsuit against her university accusing it of failing to properly investigate her rape allegations, the university fired back demanding that her full name be disclosed for all to see.
It is common for students to file sexual assault complaints under pseudonyms, which allows them to seek justice without shame, and universities have gotten into the habit of allowing it.
But in two recent lawsuits — S.B.’s case against Florida A&M and a suit by nine women against Dartmouth — the schools have demanded that students stand behind their claims by publicly revealing their identities.
Sexual assault experts say it may be a newly aggressive stance by universities in such cases.
“What you’re seeing in this particular case is real hardball,” said Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer who typically represents men accused of sexual assault. “And it’s still not the way most lawyers or schools handle it. They’re a little bit more gracious about protecting someone who was their student.”
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 in their role of stewards of public education.
Florida A&M said it was “merely asking for a fair and open trial,” and believed that doing that required “that her legal name be provided to jurors at trial.” It said its demands were in line with those of many other colleges and universities, and it took all allegations of sexual assault seriously.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement, women have become bolder about using their names in public retellings of traumatic sexual experiences and in sexual assault cases. But many fear the stigma that may result.
S.B. has filed suit in federal court accusing Florida A & M, a renowned historically black college in Tallahassee, Fla., of mishandling her rape complaints.
The university has tried three times to have S.B.’s lawsuit dismissed unless she puts her name on the record, twice through motions denied by the court and most recently in an appeal, which is pending.
The university “does not seem to acknowledge the severity, seriousness, sensitivity or personal nature of rape allegations,” Judge Mark E. Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida said in denying the request to disclose her name.
In a similar legal strategy, Dartmouth College has objected to allowing some of the women who are suing it in a sexual assault case to be identified as Jane Does. In that case, the plaintiffs are accusing three professors of turning a human behavior research department into what they call “a 21st-century Animal House,” where they were coerced into having sex. Dartmouth has said the lawsuit mischaracterizes its actions.
The identities of the women in both cases are known to the university lawyers, but not to the public.
In court papers, Florida A&M argues that it is only fair for S.B. to be publicly identified because she is publicly identifying the university officials who she says mishandled her case and the men who she says raped her.
“The alleged perpetrators have been deemed by S.B. to be ‘rapists’ although none have been convicted of a crime,” the university said in court papers.
“Outing an alleged rape victim simply because other parties or individuals involved in the lawsuit are not proceeding anonymously serves no legitimate public interest,” the judge said in his decision.
The university says that allowing her to use her initials makes her appear to be a victim who needs protection, even though that has not been proved in court. It says that the impression of victimhood gives her credibility.
In her suit, S.B. says she was raped three separate times in 2012 and 2013, her first two years as an undergraduate, twice by students and once by someone who was on campus regularly but was not a student. She says she reported the rapes to campus officials, and they did not do enough to investigate and protect her from further contact with her alleged attackers. She later transferred out of the school.
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.
“This is a public policy question,” he said in an interview. “Do we want an institution that welcomes thousands of young people in the state of Florida to have adopted a course of conduct that is contrary to the public policies of every single college and university in the state?”
He said the move was intended to intimidate the woman into dropping her suit.
In the Dartmouth case, the university argued in court papers that because some of the six named plaintiffs had sought publicity, granting interviews with news outlets including The New York Times, it did not make sense for the three other plaintiffs to be anonymous. It also said that anonymous plaintiffs could not properly represent a class-action lawsuit.
Justin Anderson, a spokesman for Dartmouth, said Wednesday that its case was different from the Florida A&M case because it involved a class-action lawsuit. He said that protecting their anonymity would hamper the ability of investigators to gather information from the rest of the class.
Several lawyers said that universities had a special responsibility to protect the confidentiality of their students in Title IX cases like these. Title IX is the federal law that protects students against sex discrimination, including sexual assault.
Mr. Dolce, S.B.’s lawyer, said that it was hypocritical for the university to allow confidentiality when a sexual assault was reported, but not when the university was being sued. Florida A&M “in no uncertain terms, told her, ‘we are going to protect your identity,” he said.