Will Cosby and Lieb Be the Exceptions or the Turning Point?

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for a court appearance Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Norristown, Pa.  Cosby was arrested
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for a court appearance Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Norristown, Pa. Cosby was arrested and charged with drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home in January 2004. A judge will decide whether to dismiss a sexual assault case against the comedian over an unwritten promise of immunity that a former prosecutor says he gave Cosby's now-deceased lawyer. (Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, Pool)

In a Huffington Post blog post last month, "Why Some Men Are Above the Law," University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum declared Bill Cosby's indictment an exception.

Last week, we learned that another University of Chicago Professor, Jason Lieb, resigned after the University found he violated its sexual misconduct policy.

The exceptions are piling up.

In her post about her own "Bill Cosby tale," Nussbaum generalizes from her own story of doing nothing, which is an understandable response for some victims. She advises women violated by influential men not to seek justice but to let the powerful keep their power. "Move on. Do not," she counsels, "let your life get hijacked by an almost certainly futile effort at justice ... forget the law."

If we disregard the incongruous advice of Nussbaum, the University of Chicago's Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, the egregious Cosby and Lieb cases could be a turning point in justice for sexual assault survivors, not exceptions.

Let's take our cues from the women who sought justice and the people who had their backs. It is because former Temple University employee Andrea Constand did not take Nussbaum's "sage advice" and sought justice in the legal system that Cosby is now indicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault. It was in the deposition for Constand's case that Cosby damningly admitted under oath to purchasing Quaaludes for what he called "sex" but the women who endured his advances are calling sexual assault and rape. Even without a conviction, it's difficult to look at Cosby's crumbled career, rescinded honorary degrees, mug shot, and perp walk into court and not see some justice.

Nussbaum believes she made a good decision for herself, and she may have. But every assault is unique. Every perpetrator unique. Every survivor unique. Every vision of justice unique. We need to honor each survivor's unique path to healing and recognize that what's right for one survivor is not necessarily going to work for all others. It's fair to warn survivors that, with the minute probability of successful litigation, the legal system can constitute a second victimization. Some survivors may choose not to seek justice using law enforcement and the courts, while others may.

Let's keep the law, imperfect as it is, but also expand our definition of justice beyond it. Nussbaum equates justice and the legal system, but the legal system is not our only venue for justice. Survivors -- and we're not, as Nussbaum implies, only women -- have many options beyond the law. We can take action in informal and institutional venues as well as, or instead of, legal ones. Indeed, by reporting Lieb to the University, UChicago graduate students put Lieb's job in jeopardy. He has not yet been charged with a crime, but the circumstances of his resignation will forever cloud his career. There's some justice there. Cosby and Lieb have also been skewered in the court of public opinion, another powerful venue for justice.

It is because survivors aren't taken seriously that they have a difficult time getting justice. Survivors need support, and Nussbaum's advice for what society can do is spot on: "Don't give actors and athletes such glamor and reputational power." That advice also applies to how we treat campus stars. But Nussbaum lets society off the hook. She dismisses the likelihood of such forthright behavior, declaring, "That won't happen in the real world."

She's wrong. It does happen. It happened to Cosby: comedian Hannibal Buress called him a rapist on stage. That simple power-denying act broke open the story to a disbelieving public. And, science journal Nature's editorial set the stage for people to challenge sexual transgressions in the scientific world. Survivors need support, and friends, bystanders, and community play a game-changing role in challenging the powerful. We need to start by believing survivors even in the face of perpetrators' glamour and prestige.

The reason some people are above the law is because of advice like Nussbaum's. She doubts people will stand up to power and tells survivors that seeking justice is futile. Nussbaum is wrong. Some people will stand up -- sometimes at great personal cost -- and survivors can find justice. We may just need to be creative in terms of how we define justice and pursue it. Let's make Cosby and Lieb the turning point, not the exceptions.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.