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Sexual Assault Witnesses At Occidental College Subjected To Vile Harassment Emails

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On June 6, a stranger from Powersite, Missouri, emailed a female witness to a sexual assault case at Occidental College in Los Angeles to complain she represented "what's worst about America."

Two days earlier, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties nonprofit known as FIRE that mostly focuses on free speech issues, had announced it was working with a John Doe who was suing Occidental. Doe, a pseudonym for an anonymous freshman, was expelled in December after Occidental found him responsible for sexual assault. FIRE contended in an email blast to followers that the expulsion lacked due process for the accused.

"What kind of a radical fucking man hating dyke are you?" the angry stranger asked the witness in the email. "Please, slice your goddamn wrists, nail your pussy shut and go wait tables before you harm someone else. It's bitches and whores like you who give women a bad name.” (The witness requested anonymity for this story an attempt to avoid further harassment.)

The email author presumably got the witness' name through a confidential investigator's report that FIRE had posted online, along with its announcement supporting Doe. The report was prepared by an independent attorney hired by the college to investigate the sexual assault allegation filed against Doe by a female freshman, whose name was redacted. The woman had sex with Doe on Sept. 8, 2013, but she and witnesses contend she was too drunk to consent.

Since FIRE's publication of the report on June 4, at least four of nine witnesses named in the document have received harassment online. One now plans to transfer to another school.

"How can you feel anything but terror when you read through these vile comments online that are only directed at the survivor and the women in this case?" the witness who received the Missouri email told HuffPost.

Occidental faces intense pressure to improve how it handles sexual violence on campus.

In the spring of 2013, a group of 37 students, alumni and faculty filed two federal complaints against Occidental for its alleged failures handling such cases. Occidental is among 68 colleges currently under investigation by the Education Department over similar concerns. Some of the women who have publicly come forward against the private California college have faced harassment in the form of scurrilous emails and social media messages -- similar to what other women around the country have reported experiencing after filing their own complaints.

But in the case highlighted by FIRE, no one initially attempted to go public. The reported victim, who was 17 at the time, never wanted to speak to the press -- and still doesn't. None of the witnesses were aware that their participation in a confidential investigation would be posted online for anyone to read, and picked up by news outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Fox News.

Attorneys for Occidental asked FIRE in June to take down the investigator's report, saying it was taken from the college's "secure system" in violation of school policy.

Complainants and respondents "are prohibited from downloading, copying, distributing or retaining those records," Occidental said in a statement sent by spokeswoman Samantha Bonar to HuffPost. "The investigative report was one such record in this case, and the College believes that it was removed from the 'view-only' website in violation of College policy."

Aidan Dougherty, a male witness interviewed for the case, who agreed to speak on the record for this article, said disclosure of witness names sends a message. "Future witnesses might not step forward or tell the whole truth because they do not want their friends and family -- let alone the world -- to know that they had been drinking or smoking the night of an incident, all important pieces to a testimony," he said. Several other witnesses either declined to comment or could not be reached for this story.

The alleged victim reported the incident to the college and the police a week after it occurred, on Sept. 16, 2013. Local prosecutors declined to press charges, but the college launched an investigation that resulted in finding Doe responsible for sexual assault in December. Doe sued Occidental on Feb. 19, 2014.

A series of text messages submitted to the court show both parties were aware they were engaging in sexual acts. But the questions are whether the woman was too drunk to comprehend the situation, and whether the accused assailant should have realized she was too intoxicated to consent. FIRE and the lawsuit say it's unfair to blame Doe because both individuals were intoxicated, and allege the college was quick to punish him in an attempt to mute criticism of school amid the ongoing federal investigation.

Occidental hadn't done much initially to protect the confidential investigator's report, but tried to after the FIRE's involvement escalated publicity of the case.

Since the document was submitted to the court, it is public for anyone with the ability to access records in the Los Angeles Superior Court. Occidental's request to seal the portions of the lawsuit was denied in June, with a judge declaring, "I don't understand why [it] is so pressing in June when it wasn't so pressing in February."

Dougherty said publishing the names of witnesses leaves Doe and the reported victim vulnerable as well.

"FIRE may have omitted the names of the survivor and the perpetrator, but the fact that they publicized the witnesses' names nullified everyone's privacy," Doughery said. "It does not take a lot to put two and two together to find out who the omitted persons are when you include the names of both their roommates, the residence hall they live in, and their room number."

None of the parties involved have taken responsibility for making the confidential documents public.

"John Doe's attorney has refused to answer the question of how they obtained a copy of the 'view-only' investigative report, and FIRE thus far has refused to remove it from its website," Occidental said in its statement.

Doe's attorneys declined to explain to HuffPost how they got the investigator's report. They said it was necessary to submit it to the court, where it became open record, "in order to appeal Occidental College's administrative decision to expel the student."

Robert Shibley, FIRE senior vice president, declined to remove the investigator's report from his group's website for the same reason he supported the judge's denial for sealing portions of the lawsuit. "The public interest lies in transparency, especially when the charge is so serious and the procedure is as flawed and unjust as it was in this case," Shibley said in an email to HuffPost.

"I am sorry to hear that people are allegedly being harassed for their involvement in the Occidental case," Shibley said. "As should be obvious, FIRE is in no way responsible for such activity and neither encourages nor facilitates such activity."

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this story previously suggested the confidential investigator's report was submitted to the court after FIRE's publication. It was submitted to the court, and then published on FIRE's website.

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