Letter to the Editor: Burden of Proof

April 19, 2011, 12:25 a.m.

Dear Editor,


I write in response to Viviana Arcia’s op-ed on President Hennessy’s recent executive order. The order lowered the standard of proof in student misconduct hearings from “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” to “Preponderance of the Evidence” in cases where the student is alleged to have committed a sexual assault. “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is the standard used in all criminal matters in the United States. The high standard ensures against unjust convictions and reduces the risk of factual errors. The reasonable doubt standard symbolizes the significance our society attaches to personal liberty. By contrast, “Preponderance of the Evidence” is the lowest standard, typically used in civil matters, where the only punishment faced by the accused is a monetary one.

Ms. Arcia’s central argument is that Stanford is justified in lowering its standard of proof for sexual assault, because the standard is lower in criminal cases involving domestic violence. This is legally and factually wrong. The burden of proof for criminal domestic violence and sexual assault is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” like it is for all criminal proceedings — not “Preponderance of the Evidence.” The belief that some crimes have (or should have) a lower standard of proof defies common sense. It also flies in the face of the single most important constitutional protection for a free, just and democratic society: the presumption of innocence.

Ms. Arcia also claims that only 2 percent of reports of sexual assault are false. This statistic is both misleading and inaccurate. It is misleading, because there is no way to determine how many reports of rape are true or false — the accusation is usually one person’s word against the other, making “truth” impossible to determine.

The claim is also inaccurate, since studies attempting to pinpoint the percentage of false reports differ dramatically. A comprehensive review of studies throughout the United States, New Zealand and the United Kingdom found that estimates of falsely reported rapes range from 1.5 percent to as much as 90 percent. (Rumney, P. N. S., 65 False Allegations of Rape. Cambridge Law Journal 128-158 (2006)). Ms. Arcia’s figure is simply one guess among many. There is nothing scientific or reliable about her number.

The ASSU Constitution provides that University administration, including the President and Provost, lacks the authority to alter the rules of the disciplinary process without amending the ASSU Constitution itself. The President’s unilateral decision, in the middle of the academic year, to lower the standard of proof from that guaranteed to students by the Stanford Judicial Charter of 1997 and the ASSU Constitution is not only unfair but also likely violates Stanford’s constitution.

In short, I found Ms. Arcia’s Op-Ed not only ill informed and misleading, but sad. That the University would adopt a standard typically used when the only stakes are monetary to adjudicate whether someone should be educated within its walls speaks volumes about the value the University places on the education it provides. The President’s recent decision is all the proof I need to know that the University shows little respect for the rights of students — male or female.


Daniel Barton,  J.D. ‘88


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