It began as a typical college hookup: two students at UC San Diego met at a party last year, began drinking and ended up in bed.
The encounter snowballed into a sexual assault complaint, university investigation and a finding that the male student should be suspended.
But the accused student fought back in court and won — marking what is believed to be the first judicial ruling in recent years that a university failed to provide a fair trial in a sexual misconduct case. Some legal experts said Tuesday that the finding could have a broad national impact.
“It could have tremendous persuasive influence on other courts,” said Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who, along with 15 colleagues, has raised concerns about the rights of accused students in campus sexual assault cases.
Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., called the decision an outlier that was inconsistent with other court rulings on the due process protections required in these cases.
In the San Diego case, Superior Court Judge Joel M. Pressman found that the accused student, identified as John Doe, was impermissibly prevented from fully confronting and cross-examining his accuser.
The judge also found that there was insufficient evidence to back the university’s findings that Doe had forced the accuser, identified as Jane Roe, into sexual activity without her consent. The judge ordered UC San Diego to drop its finding against Doe and all sanctions, including a suspension of one year and an additional academic quarter.
The case is being watched nationally as concern has grown that the intensified crackdown on campus sexual assault over the last few years has at times skewed too far against those accused. Over the last four years, the U.S. Department of Education has launched more investigations, imposed more fines and issued more guidelines on campus sexual assault than ever before, pressuring schools to improve what many acknowledged were serious flaws in their handling of complaints.
But the crackdown has also raised concerns about fairness.
Last fall, 28 Harvard Law School faculty members wrote an article criticizing their campus procedures on sexual assault cases as lacking “the most basic elements of fairness and due process” and “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.”