In a move that might prove historic, the Missouri state legislature has decided to lead the nation to protect an oppressed minority in the name of social justice.
They're throwing down for the rights of men.
In a push inspired by a wealthy donor and fueled by dark money, the Republican majority has introduced legislation to eviscerate enforcement of Title IX regulations on state college campuses — public and private — and make Missouri the most difficult place in America for a young woman to make an allegation of sexual misconduct or harassment. Conversely, it would provide protection to young men — especially those of means — that they haven't had in many years.
To understand the state situation, you have to understand the federal landscape, because therein lies the well from which the crusade for men's rights has sprung. President Donald Trump's imperative could not be clearer:
"My whole life I've heard, 'You're innocent until proven guilty,' but now you're guilty until proven innocent. That's a very, very difficult standard. It's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of."
Trump made that statement during the confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It came with the full moral authority of a man who famously displayed his respect for women on videotape with such memorable passages as, "I moved on her like a bitch" and "I just start kissing them. ... Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."
Then we elected him. And shortly after taking office, one of his first acts was to reverse President Barack Obama's effort to improve higher-education enforcement of Title IX, the 1972 law that became one of the most consequential anti-discrimination measures in history.
Unlike Trump, Obama had both his heart and his hands in the right place with regard to women. So, in a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, his Department of Education laid out bold steps to jolt universities into better compliance with the letter and spirit of Title IX.
Long before Trump identified the world as a "dangerous place for men," a vast sea of evidence had found it a dangerous place for women, with one in five female students reporting they were sexual-abuse victims (and one in sixteen males, by the way: Title IX isn't exclusively about women).
The Obama administration dramatically broadened the definition of sexual harassment and discrimination, lowered standards of proof for accusers, mandated that off-campus incidents be investigated and required quicker response to complaints, among other things.
While the changes drew backlash, Obama undeniably improved protection for young women. It's an important piece of his legacy. But whether it represented some overreach is a matter of debate. Some tweaks to better ensure institutional autonomy and safeguard civil liberties might well be a good thing.
Total regression, however, would not. Which brings us to the swinging of the pendulum with hurricane force by Trump, and his infamous education secretary, Betsy DeVos, known in education circles as the woman who has been irritable ever since that house fell on her sister in the Land of Oz.
One of DeVos' first acts on behalf of her misogynist boss was to repeal the Obama directives. Her new rules, likely to be issued this summer, are expected to represent the polar opposite of Obama's: narrowing the definition of sexual abuse, increasing the standard of proof, allowing institutions to ignore off-campus acts and relieving them of pressure to act quickly.
But Missouri Republicans, proud infantrymen in the culture wars, cannot wait. In a rush to get to the political right of the groper-in-chief — which is saying something — they have introduced concurrent bills in the legislature, HB 573 and SB 259.
The rallying cry is to restore the civil liberties of young college men, whose claimed oppression has made them the new stars of the cult of victimization. Yet the effect of the bills would be to provide actual oppression to young college women.
At the moment, there are two versions of the bill. In the Senate, where amendments are often made from the floor, SB 259 remains in its original uncut version — and it's simply unbelievable. It would, among other things, expose accusers and/or Title IX administrators to personal lawsuits, along with their institutions, even in cases where the alleged perpetrator hasn't been clearly exonerated. It would remove longstanding rape-shield protections for accusers, subjecting them to attacks on their character and sexual history for the sin of filing a complaint. It would require Title IX administrators to make sworn statements about their own personal histories, supposedly to root out biases they might have in favor of an accuser.
On the House side, the legislation was amended in committee to remove the most extreme provisions. It's likely that the Senate will follow suit, but there's no guarantee. And even if these noxious examples don't survive to the final product, their existence exposes the clear intent of this legislation: to protect men by threatening to destroy women and administrators who would dare file a Title IX complaint against one of them.
Even the amended form of the bill has plenty of toxicity. Washington University, among others, continues to oppose it strongly because it would provide for re-traumatization of those alleging rape or harassment by subjecting them to cross-examination (probably by experienced trial lawyers) without the protection of the judicial system. That's a cruel prospect.
Protecting the privacy and security of women who come forward must remain the top priority of the institutions they attend. That goal would not be incompatible with tweaks to protect due-process rights of the accused. Yet even the amended version of the bill would make that difficult, if not impossible.
Indeed, these bills don't tweak. They instead seek to apply a sledgehammer to the entire process. In one absurd new procedure (present in both House and Senate versions), accused students would be able to appeal an adverse finding to the state Administrative Hearing Commission, a little known, three-person panel that hears complaints against state agencies and has neither the expertise nor resources for such a task.
As a darkly comedic aside, the Kansas City Star has reported that one of the three hearing commissioners is married to a lobbyist pushing the "reform" bill; another is married to an attorney who's testified in its favor. But there's nothing humorous about its impact: It would invent an entirely new proceeding, heavily tilting any case in favor of students with the resources to hire a lawyer and against accusers who don't.
Using the hearing commission as a bulwark for the accused reflects the bills' central aim: to make Title IX accusations as difficult to file as possible.
Here's the bottom line: Reasonable people can differ on ways to better protect civil liberties for accused students, without further victimizing victims.
But for now, this isn't in the hands of reasonable people.
It's in the hands of unreasonable ones.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently made his triumphant return as a columnist after a seventeen-year absence. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann.