A Georgia state representative is suing the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for using what he calls unconstitutional policies in handling sexual misconduct cases on college campuses.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, filed the suit Thursday, citing lack of due process for those accused of sexual assault or harassment.
The suit brings into question the DOE’s “Dear Colleague” letters, which the DOE sends to Title IX recipient schools addressing how the schools should address discrimination issues such as harassment, bullying and sexual violence. Schools, colleges and universities that receive federal funding must comply with Title IX anti-discrimination laws meant to ensure equal opportunities for all students.
But Ehrhart argues the “Dear Colleague” letters merely interpret Title IX laws and force schools to conduct policies that could lead male college students to be “wrongly accused and found responsible” of sexual misconduct.
“You cannot make a law just because you’re some bureaucrat that lives in a hole in Washington, D.C., and you have a whim,” Ehrhart said. “You don’t get to threaten the federal funds of the taxpayers of this nation to the universities and colleges in the country.”
The suit cites concerns that such cases could tarnish the reputations of accused male students, ruin career prospects and cost students their tuition money should they be expelled.
“When you accuse someone of a crime, a heinous crime, or when you threaten their entire life and career and everything else and threaten to take that away, then it rises to the level of this type of due process. We’ve made that very specific in the laws we have in Georgia,” Ehrhart said. “You can’t have an expectation that people on a college campus walk in there and their constitutional rights go away — they don’t.”
Ehrhart’s wife, Virginia Ehrhart, whose son is a student at Georgia Tech, is also listed as a plaintiff on the lawsuit, arguing that his position as a college student could be threatened due to these policies.
Ehrhart said this suit is “personal.”
“I’m worried about their safety and their access to their constitutional rights,” he said.
The representative has been fighting for changes in colleges’ sexual misconduct proceedings, stressing the need for the accused to receive due process.
In March, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia implemented new rules concerning student conduct, including new system guidelines for addressing sexual misconduct. According to the new systemwide rules, both the accuser and accused are allowed to submit evidence and witnesses to the investigator, are permitted an attorney during proceedings and have the right to appeal the case.
Ehrhart stated concerns that cases without due process could lead to expensive lawsuits and settlements for colleges and universities. He also doubted the credibility of some of the accusations.
“Universities are losing millions in settlements because they’re finding out, when the facts bear out, that these are hoaxes — not all of them, but a large percentage, and our system of justice is based on innocent until proven guilty,” Ehrhart said. He said laws should “speak for themselves,” noting that the states should interpret Title IX laws in seeking due process for accused male students.