After moving to dismiss lawsuit, Emerson responds to mass criticism

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • October 9, 2014

President M. Lee Pelton addressed the Emerson community in an email on Monday regarding what he called an “inaccurate and misleading” Huffington Post article that sparked widespread criticism of the college. 

The Oct. 3 article, titled “Emerson College: We Have No Legal Duty to Protect Students from Rape,” quickly triggered passionate responses, many angry, from readers on social media. 

“Why would any parent send their daughter to Emerson?” one reader tweeted. 

“Ashamed and disappointed in my school, but sadly, not surprised,” another Twitter user wrote. 

On Sept. 29, lawyers for Emerson and four school administrators, including Pelton, moved to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by Jillian Doherty, a former student who alleges the college mishandled her rape case.

In Pelton’s letter—his first public acknowledgment of the lawsuit—he states that the article takes legal jargon out of context and does not reflect the school’s view of sexual assault prevention and response. 

“There are those who may have found the motion’s dispassionate legal language off-putting or insensitive,” Pelton wrote. “But these are legal documents, even though they may not be felt or read that way by those who have a compelling interest in them.”

Tony Muzzatti, a 2006 graduate and current multimedia manager at PBS, said that the attempt to dismiss the case belies the college’s recent push to improve its sexual assault policies.

“It sets you back,” he said in a phone interview. “Nobody is going to want to come forward to Emerson College now that they’ve set a precedent for how they deal with rape cases. To me, the damage has already been done.” 

Muzzatti added that while he has donated to his alma mater in the past, he will not give again until he feels Emerson is handling sexual assault cases appropriately.

According to the lawsuit, Doherty was raped by a male student in his dorm room after they had consensual sex in April 2012. After she reported the incident in March 2013, an initial investigation by the college found the accused student “not responsible,” but she appealed, and a second hearing led to the student’s expulsion from the college, the lawsuit says.

Doherty’s complaint states the defendants violated Title IX, a gender equity law, and the Jeanne Clery Act, a law that requires colleges to disclose campus crime information. She also alleges “negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” caused by the school’s actions before and after her assault. 

Christine Hughes, vice president and general counsel for Emerson, wrote in an email to the Beacon that much of the public reaction to Emerson’s response to the lawsuit stems from a misunderstanding of the college’s legal argument, confusing negligence law with Title IX.

In the motion, the school responded to Doherty’s claim of negligence by arguing her case doesn’t meet the legal requirements.

“Simply put,” Hughes wrote in her email, “Massachusetts state law recognizes that criminal activity is often random and unpredictable, and it is not fair to hold someone—other than the criminal or wrongdoer—responsible for the crime or wrongful act if it was random or unpredictable.”

She said this is distinct from Title IX’s requirement for colleges to protect students from sexual discrimination.

“Emerson has robustly embraced its obligations under Title IX,” Hughes wrote. “That report had the unfortunate result of confusing the public, rather than educating and informing the public.”

But senior Megan Kipperman said her concern was not the language. Kipperman, who is Doherty’s friend, said she saw the school’s motion to dismiss Doherty’s lawsuit as a dismissal of past mistakes.

“These are actual people with actual feelings, and you have to make up for that somehow. You can’t just be like, ‘But we fixed it now,’” she said. “I don’t see why it’s so hard to say, ‘We messed up, I’m sorry,’ and just admit that there were faults in the system.”

She added that at its core, much of the public outcry about Emerson’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit comes from genuine concern.

“This is happening at other schools too, and the reason that we’re talking is because we care about the school and the community,” she said. “We don’t hate Emerson.” 

Emerson is now among 79 colleges that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating for Title IX violations, after three female students, including Doherty, filed a complaint last fall. 

In his email to the Emerson community, Pelton wrote that the Huffington Post’s headline was deceptive and inconsistent with the college’s recent efforts to bolster campus sexual assault prevention and response. 

“The motion is legal language in a legal setting,” he wrote. “It is not a disavowal of the College’s commitment to create programs to curb sexual assault on our campus, a commitment that has already yielded many tangible new initiatives.”

He outlined several changes the college has implemented this year, including establishing a center for Violence Prevention and Response, enhancing training for first responders, implementing a comprehensive sexual assault policy, recruiting staff specializing in Title IX, and creating a biennial campus climate survey. 

Darian Carpenter, a senior visual and media arts major, said he appreciated Pelton directly reaching out to the Emerson community about the lawsuit.

“I think that the school is doing the best they can under the circumstances they’re in,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Carpenter added that while he feels Emerson officials were unprepared to handle sexual assault cases in the past, it is difficult for him to see the school receive so much criticism for policies that they have since changed. 

“They’re trying really hard to mend the system and are working hard to set up new parameters for [preventing and handling] sexual assault on campus,” he said. “It’s just really tough and sad to see such negative backlash towards them because all of these accusations are from the same time period, so it’s very much like beating a dead horse.” 

Kipperman, who is named as Doherty’s confidante in the lawsuit, said she wasn’t satisfied by Pelton’s letter to the Emerson community because it doesn’t address the college’s past wrongs. 

“I know President Pelton can’t say anything beyond what the lawyers allow him to say, but if he could just listen to how people are responding—instead of just seeing that we’re angry, see why we’re angry,” she said. “We’re angry because of the inaction, and refusal to admit inaction.”