College's legal response requires a closer look

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • October 2, 2014

At issue: Emerson moves to dismiss former student's lawsuit.

Our take: We shouldn't get caught up in the legal jargon.

After news broke that Emerson is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit from a former student who alleges the school mishandled her sexual assault case, the response was as predictable as it was passionate. Social media has been teeming with outrage over Emerson’s seemingly icy response to a student’s personal hurt. But a closer examination reveals some significant caveats. The brusque language simply reflects the parlance of law, and its bluntness doesn’t necessarily represent how the administration feels about the issue or its students. And perhaps more revealingly, Emerson’s motion contests the legal arguments of Jillian Doherty’s case, but does not challenge the facts themselves.

Students should recognize that this is a legal document written by an outside law firm, Holland & Knight. This filing, which centers on detailed legal arguments, does not necessarily reflect a personal attack on Doherty, nor must it reflect the defendants’ personal views. Legal language must be calculated and precise. The points presented in the document are based on specific laws, and aim to identify legal lapses in Doherty’s suit. The wording is not sensitive, because it’s not meant to be. 

There’s one particular line in the college’s motion that has become a focus of intense student disapproval. “Absent unusual circumstances,” the memorandum states, “there is no duty for a school to protect others from criminal or wrongful acts of third persons.” Many of our fellow classmates have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and various other outlets of online venting to condemn Emerson for this apparent denial of responsibility. But we can’t assume that it’s more than legal jargon meant for this specific context. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion this means Papa Lee is turning his back on the populace, no longer promising to tuck us in at night. Rather, it’s the college defending itself in one particular case. 

 Within this legal language, Emerson’s lawyers conspicuously avoid disputing any of Doherty’s actual allegations. The motion does not call into question Doherty’s claim that Michael Arno, the director of the office student conduct and the case’s Title IX investigator, was “not properly trained, educated, or experienced in Title IX investigations,” nor that her initial hearing, which found her accused assaulter not responsible, was “more akin to a kangaroo court than a Title IX hearing.” It does not dispute her contention that Emerson violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges to disclose crimes on and near campus, by underreporting sexual offenses. That the college’s lawyers could have disputed the facts but chose not to may bear witness to known troubles within the existing conduct proceedings.

Instead, the college’s lawyers pursued an alternative strategy: “Even when accepted as true for the purpose of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss,” says the filing, the allegations “do not establish that the Defendants violated any law.” The point, according to this motion, is not whether her claims that Emerson acted poorly are accurate, but whether her claims demonstrate Emerson acted poorly enough. That may be the law’s standard, but we can only hope Emerson has a higher moral one.