The burden of proof is far too heavy

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Mary Robertson (graphic)

Mary Robertson (graphic)

For over a week now, a student at New York’s Columbia University has been carrying a heavy burden in full view of the public. As part of her visual arts thesis, called “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” Emma Sulkowicz, 21, has been carrying a dorm mattress with her while on campus, just like the mattress she says she was raped on in 2012. She plans to carry this mattress until her attacker, who may have raped two other students, is expelled. This performance demonstrates not only how victims of sexual assault carry their experiences with them, but the extreme lengths that some victims must go to in order to get people to believe them. Most horrifying, though, is that she has had to resort to such extreme lengths to get any attention at all.

Sulkowicz and 23 other plaintiffs are involved in an ongoing federal complaint, as they believe Columbia and its sister college, Barnard, has repeatedly violated federal laws for allowing alleged perpetrators to remain on campus, discouraging reports of sexual assault, and discriminating against queer students in counselling. However, her story only gained traction after she began her performance piece. Her very public statement has finally attracted national media attention, but the story has already gone on far too long, with no positive end in sight.

Columbia’s student newspaper, The Spectator, has been reporting on Sulkowicz’s case since May, recounting intense and disturbing details about the circumstances of the assault and the university’s response, one that she says is horribly incompetent (in Columbia’s investigation, one panelist repeated asked Sulkowicz how the particular form of rape she endured could physically occur).

Here at UVic, we are in the midst of a prominent public awareness campaign about sexualized violence. To some, it may be the first time this uncomfortable topic is addressed so openly. We would encourage everyone to attend the events, or at least do some research and reflect on this serious issue.

If anyone thinks this campaign is unnecessary, simply examine the reactions to Sulkowicz’s allegations. Police officers were openly skeptical of her claims as she had consented earlier in the night, but then asked to stop (forgetting that consent can be withdrawn at any time). They even neglected to spell her name correctly in the police report. Columbia administrators did not allow Sulkowicz to submit her own written testimony; the person who transcribed her verbal statement overlooked key details that she provided, undermining her case when it was presented to school officials.

It is heartening that at UVic, institutions like the UVSS and the Vikes are participating in a campaign against sexualized violence, but to truly make a difference, all people, including students, faculty, administrators, and community members at large, must seriously consider the damaging cultural norms that pervade our society regarding sexualized violence, norms that incite people to disbelieve or ignore the injustices around them.

While Sulkowicz said she will not ask for help to carry the mattress, students have stepped up to help her, so after all this, she no longer has to go it alone. But here lies the issue: she should never have had to go this far to get the help and support she clearly deserved in the first place.

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2 Comments

Avatar Noah

The problem with this case is not the police response; of COURSE consent can be rescinded by either party at whim, but how on Earth are police supposed to know she is telling the truth? We have an example as early as Joseph and Potiphar’s wife – sometimes, for spite or whatever other reason, people DO lie. I don’t think Miss Sulkowicz is lying, but the spoken testimony of one witness should not be enough to mark a person for life as a sex offender or even to remove him from his school. Imagine what it would be like if someone could, without evidence, simply remove someone else from Uvic by claiming “he touched me.” It’s the world we live in – and it can be made better, but it won’t be by weakening due process or the objectivity of the courts in the name of quick vengeance.

Avatar Nathan Merrill

Here’s the thing:

If someone hasn’t been convicted of a crime, they’re innocent until proven guilty.

If there is no outstanding legal action against someone, removing them because someone else claimed that they were assaulted goes against everything the US stands for.

There is no problem with people who are facing outstanding criminal charges from having some restrictions on their movements as a precautionary to prevent them from committing additional crimes -as determined by the justice system-.

There is a problem when people try to take vigilante justice into their own hands.

Innocent until proven guilty is a very important component of our justice system. If the guy isn’t facing any criminal charges, then it would be wrong to expel him, because you obviously cannot prove it – and he could sue the university for unjustly kicking him out.

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