Letter to the Editor: Wait for the facts before rushing to judgment based on unverified accusations
February 13, 2017
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Like everyone in the Northwestern community, I was stunned and appalled to receive Chief of Police Bruce Lewis’s security alert informing us that four students attending a Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat party were possibly given a date rape drug, and that two may have been sexually assaulted. Lewis cited a second anonymous report that another student may have been drugged and raped at another unnamed frat.
What I didn’t learn until I read the Chicago Tribune story on the allegations — because the original Daily Northwestern story did not make this explicit initially — is that the first set of allegations were also made anonymously. “It’s not clear how the person who reported the alleged incidents knew of them,” the Tribune reports. Nor did the University know the identities of these four women at the time of Monday’s safety alert. Nevertheless, the university community has leaped to action, with Associated Student Government calling for immediately suspending SAE and other frats. Task forces are being created, social events are being suspended, there are calls to rewrite various constitutions and policies.
If we’ve learned anything from the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s now-retracted story about an alleged rape and cover-up at a University of Virginia frat a couple of years ago, it’s that we need to slow down the rush to judgment until we’re in possession of sufficient verifiable information to form solid conclusions. If we fail to do that, we’re guilty of what the commission that later investigated the Rolling Stone story excoriated as “confirmation bias”— that is, forming conclusions in advance of the facts to justify our biases. In other words, if we believe that campus culture is a rape culture, then any rape allegation has to be true.
And at this point, all we in the NU community know is that anonymous charges are being investigated. We don’t know what actually happened. I certainly hope we get updates as the investigation continues, but leaping to action — especially in the absence of verified (or perhaps even verifiable) complaints — is at best a failure of due process, and at worst vigilantism.
Professor, Radio-TV-Film Department