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HLS Profs Sign Letter Slamming 'Victim-Centered' Sexual Harassment Policies

Law Professor Janet E. Halley standing in the Law School's library.
Law Professor Janet E. Halley standing in the Law School's library. By Alana M Steinberg
By Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writer

Two Harvard Law professors have joined nearly 140 professors from universities across the country in signing a public letter that critiques what the authors call “victim-centered practices” in higher education sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Law professors Janet E. Halley and Elizabeth Bartholet ’62 signed the letter three weeks ago, along with academics hailing from institutions including Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“‘Victim-centered’ practices… threaten to subvert the objective collection and presentation of evidence in administrative, civil, and criminal sexual assault proceedings,” the letter reads.

The letter states these victim-centered practices are based in the “believe the victim” ideology they say sprang up in the 1990s. The document’s authors assert that supporters of this ideology called for “swift and unquestioning judgments about the facts of [sexual] harassment without standard evidentiary procedures.”

The letter culminates in a “call to restore due process and fundamental fairness” in university sexual harassment cases by ending the “use of victim-centered, trauma-informed, and believe the victim practices.”

At Harvard, Halley has been one of the most outspoken critics of policies and procedures pertaining to sexual assault cases. When the University adopted new sexual harassment policies in the fall of 2014, Halley numbered among the 28 signatories of an open letter that criticized these changes.

Halley and Bartholet also comprised two of the four Harvard Law School faculty members who submitted a memo to the U.S. Department of Justice last year asking for a review of the standards outlined in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. That letter was an Obama-era order directed colleges and universities receiving federal funding to “use a lower standard of proof” in sexual assault cases as well as establishing a broader definition of the term sexual harassment. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded those guidelines in September.

Halley said in an interview Tuesday she signed the recent open letter because it aligned with her belief that the policies and procedures on sexual assault need to be revised.

“I signed it because I thought it was correct. I’ve seen the bad effects of politically slanted training,” Halley said.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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Harvard Law SchoolSexual Assault