Early Saturday morning, The New York Post reported that a former graduate student is suing a Columbia professor for sexual harassment. The former student is alleging that the professor tried to make the plaintiff exchange sex for a good grade, that he accused her of cheating when she refused, and that the administrators contacted by the student to address the situation, who are named as co-defendants in the lawsuit, were uncooperative.
A University spokesperson apparently said that Columbia would not comment, as this is a case of active litigation. Members of the Columbia community, however, are bound to comment. And we need to think about what we're saying if and when we do.
First, we need to remember the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and that we cannot jump to conclusions about anything mentioned above until there is more, and more of substance, to mention.
But second, and just as important, we need to remember that being an accuser does not make one guilty. In the comments of the Spectrum post on this issue, one commenter, under the name of "Anon," wrote, "Why did she wait seven years, never tell anyone, and never file a report? Sounds pretty fishy to me. He should counter sue for slander and defamation." Another, also writing under "Anon," wrote, "She was found to be cheating and now she is trying to take it out on him. An employer probably questioned her bad grades, and now she is looking for an excuse. Yeah, lady, it’s the professors fault you were found cheating."
Yes, there are cases in which people are falsely accused of sexual harassment. That is horrible. There are also cases in which sexual harassment is indeed very real. That, it hardly needs to be said, is also horrible. And there are cases—too many cases—in which women and men are sexually harassed and do not come forward out of fear or shame. That is also horrible. And it will be still more so if our campus creates a culture wherein victims do not come forward and try to get justice for themselves and their community because they fear being judged in the court of public opinion, a trend that is hardly limited to these two comments.
I do not know whether or not this professor sexually harassed this woman. I do know that anyone—on this campus or anywhere else—should feel comfortable honestly coming forward. I do know that to make a comment wherein the accuser is assumed to be in the wrong instead of wronged, to contribute to the creation of a culture of shame and fear, is to make oneself the verifiably guilty party.