A new filing in a lawsuit against the Trump administration accuses Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and a top deputy of being motivated in part by sexism in their policy decisions.
The lawsuit, originally filed in January, challenged DeVos’ elimination of Obama-era Title IX guidance on how sexual assault cases are handled on campus. But an amended complaint submitted Wednesday says that DeVos’ decision was influenced by discriminatory and stereotyped views of women.
DeVos scrapped the Title IX guidance in September 2017, issuing her own interim guidance on the subject. Her version raised the standard of evidence used in campus sexual assault cases. At the time, DeVos said that the Obama administration’s directive was an example of federal overreach.
But plaintiffs in the filing say DeVos and her deputies had more nefarious motivations, and they use new Freedom of Information Act records as evidence. The records indicate that Department of Education leaders had solicited input from groups and academics who push inflated and widely discredited statistics regarding the prevalence of false rape allegations. A National Sexual Violence Resource Center study found that false reports account for only about 2 percent to 10 percent of such allegations, a range that it said was likely inflated.
“What you see is that this administration is buying into the sex stereotype that women and girls lie about these types of things, and they’re making policy based on that view,” Karianne Jones, counsel for Democracy Forward Foundation, told HuffPost. Democracy Forward is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with the National Women’s Law Center, National Center for Youth Law and Equal Rights Advocates.
According to the lawsuit, the records also show Candice Jackson, then acting head of the department’s Office for Civil Rights, recommended a book to her staff, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by academic Laura Kipnis. The book describes Obama’s Title IX guidance as allowing women to seek legal recourse for “awkward sexual experiences” and then ask for protection from “sexual bogeymen,” per the filing.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of pending litigation but pushed back on the lawsuit’s assertions, noting that department leaders met with a wide range of stakeholders on the issue at the time.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than a baseless, politically motivated attack on the Secretary,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said by email. “She and OCR staff met with a number of people on this important issue including survivors, falsely accused students, college presidents and university GCs and the message was very clear from all of them — we have to get this right on behalf of students and the current process isn’t serving students well.
“The Secretary is committed to Title IX reforms that will ensure survivors feel empowered to come forward, all students are afforded due process and universities have clear rules to follow.”
The lawsuit says that, although the department solicited the views of those who were critical of Obama’s Title IX guidance, “the Department met with organizations that advocate for Title IX’s protections for survivors only after repeated, collective requests from those organizations.”
The FOIA records also show that Jackson had consulted with figures such as professor Gordon Finley of Florida International University on the issue. Finley is a member of the National Coalition for Men, a men’s rights organization, and has referred to Obama’s Title IX guidance as a “war on men.”
Records also show Jackson was in close contact with the group Families Advocating for Campus Equality, requesting they publish op-eds before a speech by DeVos, according to the lawsuit. The group was started by parents whose children had been accused of sexual assault on campus.
DeVos previously publicly met with representatives of the National Coalition for Men and Families Advocating for Campus Equality.
The plaintiffs in the case, which include groups like SurvJustice, Equal Rights Advocates and Victim Rights Law Center, say these documents, along with other statements and actions taken by DeVos and Jackson, show they had “discriminatory motivation.”
An original lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs challenged the Trump administration’s overall rescission of Obama’s Title IX guidance. An overall challenge to the rescission was dismissed, with the judge saying you cannot challenge a nonbinding piece of guidance. But the amended complaint takes a different approach, instead focusing on the mindset of administration officials.
At the time DeVos rescinded the guidance, she said the old process lacked due process. A report from the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday says that DeVos is gearing up to release new rules on the matter, which will require that accused students be allowed to cross-examine their accusers and will narrow the definition of sexual assault cases that schools must arbitrate. Advocates worry that such a process will make victims more reluctant to come forward.
The lawsuit mentions President Donald Trump’s previous comments and behavior toward women, accusing him of sexism.
Jackson previously said that 90 percent of sexual assault accusations are a result of drunken regrets or misunderstandings, a remark noted in the amended complaint and original lawsuit.
At the time of the original lawsuit, a lawyer for the federal government said this did not prove intentional sexism on Jackson’s part.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the guidance Betsy DeVos issued for campus sexual assault cases; her version raised, not lowered, the standard of evidence used.