I want to talk about due process.
For many, that phrase, as well as others that have over the years migrated from legal to casual discourse, has become a red flag. While it is a founding right of the American state (which, it is worth noting, often fails to remember this) and a legal doctrine designed to give voice to those who might otherwise fall prey to harsh and arbitrary justice, it has, very recently, become a tool for silence.
This is not universally the case. In most situations, due process is invoked as a means to remind overarching structures of the role they ought to play in the delivery of justice and the protection of citizens. In the space of the last year, however, it has mutated into a way to shout down public discussions of guilt, support, and responsibility. Like “freedom of speech,” it has fallen to reckless misuse in its invocation and begun to lose its meaning as an essential notion of jurisprudence and a means to ensure the rights of the marginalized as guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of these United States. Let me explain.
If we look at the conversation around any high profile instance of sexual or domestic violence—the accusations leveled against figures such as Woody Allen, Bryan Singer or Jian Ghomeshi—we are certain to see the wanton plea for due process, the scolding reminder that the American system thereof operates around the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty.” Even in certain campus discussions—both at Wesleyan and elsewhere—the same tone arises. When the story of Emma Sulkowicz (whose powerful and necessary decision to carry her mattress around Columbia University until her rapist is expelled inspired the beautiful Help Carry That Weight rallies) was covered in New York Magazine, hordes of commentators expressed their disgust with the project. They claimed that it implicated an individual who had not been found guilty in a court of law and thus violated his rights as an American citizen to due process.
Those claims are utter bullshit and dangerous bullshit at that. In these conversations, it becomes clear that those invoking legal rights not only have very little understanding of America’s legal system but also are more concerned with silencing a survivor than actually participating in important discussions about how our nation treats those who are sexually victimized.
The basic problem of this rhetoric is that it fundamentally misunderstands the idea of due process. Under the United States’ Constitution (which grants, in the Fifth Amendment, that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) due process exists only in regard to the actions of the state and the judicial systems, which are arms of that same state. The mention of “life, liberty, and property” underscores this. These are rights that are ensured by the state. They can only be revoked by the state. That is why due process exists: to ensure that in those cases where the state or its agents are poised to deprive a citizen of guaranteed rights, an appropriate level of scrutiny and fairness is attended to. Due process, like freedom of speech, does not apply to the dealings of the public (or “the court of public opinion”) or private institutions.
Focusing momentarily on that first part, nowhere does the government promise a citizen that they cannot be scrutinized or judged by society. Certainly, those judgments do not hold legal precedent, and thus they do not hold the weight of legal indictment, but they are neither discouraged or disallowed. If you are accused of a crime, members of society are more than welcome to decide that, in their personal views, you are guilty. They cannot, on their own, send you to prison, but they can call you a murderer or a rapist or a thief.
Furthermore, society seems to have very little concern when the court of public opinion comes to the first or third decisions. When O.J. Simpson was accused of murder, the public resoundingly considered him guilty. During the riots in Ferguson, those same individuals who demanded that judgment not be passed against Darren Wilson without due process of law were quick to indict those who they heard looted shops or the murdered teenager who they claimed stole cigarillos (the latter claim was later proven false). These trends point to both a hypocrisy and a misunderstanding in the worship of due process in the public sphere. They also underscore the problematic discourse around sexual violence that haunts our country.
The same applies when attention turns to private institutions. You are not guaranteed a trial before you are fired from a job or expelled from a school. Private educational institutions (Wesleyan included) have students sign paperwork upon entry that explicitly makes them aware of the institution-specific judicial codes. As such, it is lunacy to claim that Wesleyan does not adhere to the standards of the national judicial system. It is not required to, and students are made aware of that upon enrollment. For public institutions the line can become blurry, but as it stands, most scrutiny and outrage has been directed at schools such as Columbia and Wesleyan. In the same way that you are not entitled to say whatever you want to whomever you want in a private institution, you are not entitled to due process in one either. Why? Because punishments from private institutions do not violate those things that due process is protecting. Wesleyan will not be sending you to jail or executing you after years of dehumanizing prison time on death row. The boss who fired you does not seize your home or assets. The scope of punishment within a private institution is nowhere near the same as that available to the state, and so the protections are not either. You are not guaranteed a private education. You are not guaranteed a job with a private company. Neither your private college nor your private job is responsible for granting or protecting (beyond codified limits) “life, liberty, and property,” and so they are not subject to the same process as the systems that do. Those are public rights. These are private institutions.
This all points to something else that is immensely important: the way in which our justice system approaches survivors of assault is abysmal, and it needs severe attendance. It is a well known fact that the statistics of those convicted of sexual violence do not make sense when held against the minuscule statistics about the rare cases in which violence has been fabricated. Our courts do not do survivors justice. Moreover, survivors are often demeaned by those to whom they report, such as the police or discouraged from reporting at all. In other rare cases, the survivor’s voice is ignored to such a degree that they are all but coerced into misidentifications by lazy officers. Time and time again, our justice system has not served those who need its protection, and it allows violent individuals to go or remain free. Where is the conversation about this?
Instead, we have hordes of moralists misunderstanding fundamentals of legal philosophy, bumbling through half-assed explanations of jury selection and the ways in which our justice system is supposed to be working. Their rhetoric isolates those in need of support and paints their requests for help and solidarity as false violations of a potentially dangerous individual’s misunderstood rights. It might be laughable if it wasn’t horrifying, but in the end all that it does is underscore the tenuous grasp we as a public have on the ways in which justice is supposed to work. More even than that, though, it instills a poorly constructed understanding of how ideas of responsibility and compassion are meant to function. It empowers the name of the privileged over the well-being of the victimized, and it reinforces the way sectors of society self-train to ignore and insult survivors of violence. Sitting at your computer screen, your job is not to be a judge. Coming upon the stories of those in your community who have fallen prey to abuse, your job is not to be the jury. Your job is to be compassionate, kind, supportive, or—failing that—quiet. You are no one’s lawyer, and this is not your courtroom. These are people’s lives. Do your research. Act accordingly.
Darer is a member of the class of 2016.