By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC ’19)
In October 2018, Pomona College became entangled in a social and legal controversy over the creation of student-made lists that barred particular individuals from entering college-funded events. Sigma Tau, a fraternity at Pomona College, is one of the groups that employed a list to prohibit perpetrators of sexual assault from attending their gatherings. On the Facebook page for an event the group hosted with funds received from the college, they attached a Google form that functioned as a blacklist. It barred entry to their event for any person whose name was anonymously placed on the list. While these lists serve as a powerful tool for maintaining student accountability, they violate the college’s legal obligation to comply with federal due process procedures and non-discrimination laws.
The success of these lists was contingent on honesty and anonymity. The lists typically asked for the name, school, and contact information of the person whose presence threatens a student or group of students at Pomona College. Some lists, like the one used for Sigma Tau’s event, would ask additional questions, such as, “do you want us to tell them beforehand not to come?” and “add any details (like why you want them barred entry).” Even though the importance of honesty was stressed by the student organizations who employed the lists, the system lacked fundamental fact-checking procedures, making it impossible to know if a person’s anonymous submission was a true account.
The intent of these lists was to prioritize the safety and well-being of survivors of sexual assault in the Claremont community. These blacklists allowed survivors to safely participate in campus social life without going through the formal process of reporting sexual assault to the college’s administration through Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity involving federal funding. The Title IX process for reporting and adjudicating sexual assault is often viewed as lengthy and ineffective, causing many survivors to choose not to participate in this formal process.
In 2017, Pomona College received public scrutiny for the handling of a sexual assault case through Title IX procedures. The survivor, who wrote an anonymous open letter documenting her experiences, ended up spending a semester away from school while her perpetrator remained on campus. Upon returning to campus, she was assigned a random male roommate. Many students saw the mishandling of Title IX cases such as this one as a sign that students must take independent action to protect survivors on campus.
Pomona College administration condemned the use of these blacklists, as they violate the college’s legal obligation to comply with non-discrimination laws put forth by Title IX. Since student organizations, such as Sigma Tau, are funded by the college, they too are bound to comply with non-discrimination laws. Barring a student from entering events through the use of a blacklist is a violation of that individual’s due process. Due process rights act as a safeguard from arbitrary ruling and ensure equal protection of the law.
The Due Process Clause, guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment, creates a legal obligation for all states and federally funded programs to ensure due process rights to each party in a dispute. Every student is protected by Title IX’s non-discrimination laws. Therefore, every student has the right to enter events that are put on by college-funded student organizations, unless otherwise determined by the college. Thus, student-made blacklists are a violation of the federal right to due process.
The right to due process is guaranteed to individuals by the federal government and federally-funded entities. Private actors, though, have no legal obligation to follow due process procedures before barring individuals from a private event. Had Sigma Tau not received funding from Pomona College, the use of student-made blacklists would be permitted under federal law.
The use of blacklists to protect survivors at Pomona College resulted in the denial of individual’s fundamental rights of due process. However, the lists succeeded in shedding light onto the flawed procedures of Title IX and the need for institutional progress.
In order to bridge the gap between survivor safety and the administration’s legal responsibilities, schools need to build students’ trust in Title IX’s institutional process. First, Pomona College administration should implement greater preventative measures to address sexual violence, such as increased programming on consent culture. In addition, the college administration should work with students to reform the adjudication process to be more fair and equitable to survivors. If survivors feel that the Title IX process to legally arbitrate sexual assault is just, the use of blacklists would no longer be necessary. Ultimately, the onus should not fall on students to protect survivors, but rather, the college administration.