Ernst can be a strong voice against sexual violence on campuses

A steady diet of televised police dramas would leave the typical American with a presumption of what happens to the accused in a sexual assault allegation on a college campus.

If the finger is pointed at a student for raping a classmate, the allegation will be adjudicated to an innocent-until-proven-guilty, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold before any sanctions are meted out, right?

No. Not on the modern college campus.

Not if the report is made to college officials and handled administratively, where thanks to directives from the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, colleges and universities must employ a “preponderance of evidence” standard in grievance procedures for sexual assault. In other words, students can be expelled or alternatively punished if college officials, or their hired hands, determine that it is more likely than not, a 50.0001 percent proposition that the accused (generally a man) sexually assaulted a victim/survivor (generally a woman).

One college president in Iowa told me the issue of how to adjudicate allegations of sexual assault is the most controversial debate on his campus since the Vietnam War.

The Department of Education has determined that because 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted (according to the Campus Sexual Assault Survey of 2007) the issue is one of gender discrimination under Title IX.

Rape survivors’ advocates contend that the administrative procedure on a campus (where jail time and criminal records aren’t on the line) can be constructed to be more hospitable to complainants who think the off-campus American justice system is stacked against them. Indeed, most sexual assaults are never even reported.

But the question remains: Don’t we want to live in a nation where we’d rather see 100 guilty people go free than punish one innocent person?

That foundational sense of fairness is lost on many rape survivors’ advocates today, reports the New York Review of Books.

“We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says,” Zerlina Maxwell asserted recently in The Washington Post. “Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.”

The Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti sums up the argument thus: “On the one side, there are the 20 percent of college women who can expect to be victimized by rapists and would-be rapists; on the other side is a bunch of adult men (and a few women) worrying themselves to death that a few college-aged men might have to find a new college to attend.”

The results for the falsely accused are far more severe than transferring universities in the instant access world of Google. Having one’s name attached to “sexual assault” in a search engine is a reputation death sentence.

Bigger picture, sexual assault is a crime. College campuses wouldn’t be asked to establish panels to hand out penalties to people accused of murder. Think about it. Is being accused of rape any less serious than murder? I’d rather be tagged with a murder. In many ways, murder carries less stigma, offers many more avenues for defense, exoneration and redemption. Rape is the devil’s handiwork, a crime for which there is only a road to perdition. Has anyone ever raped in self-defense?

During her student days at Iowa State University, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, volunteered at a crisis center, fielding calls from women facing a variety of challenges.

“There is so much human trafficking, prostitution, abuse situations out there I don’t think most of the public is aware of,” Ernst said. “It can affect any family.”

She’s also aware of the roaring national debate on sexual assault on campuses. On a recent conference call with this newspaper and other media, Ernst said allegations of sexual assault should be handled by law enforcement, police and sheriff’s offices in Iowa.

“I would think that at some point we could turn that over to city or county officials,” Ernst said.

She’s also co-signed bipartisan legislation to address a broad sweep of issues connected to sexual assault on campuses.

Ernst has credibility with conservatives, and experience on the supporting end of phone calls from frightened women facing all manner and variety of sexual terror.

She is positioned to be a powerful force for good for our nation’s college students.

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