The Feminist Majority Foundation filed a major federal lawsuit last week against the University of Mary Washington (UMW) and UMW’s former president Richard Hurley for their systemic failure to protect students from a sexually hostile school environment, sexual harassment, sex-based cyber assaults, and threats of physical and sexual violence, in violation of Title IX and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. FMF’s co-plaintiffs include five former students and an FMF-affiliated UMW student group, Feminists United on Campus.
Throughout the 2014-2015 school year on the Virginia university campus, the on-campus group Feminists United, as well as individually named members of the group, were targeted with cyber-stalking, sexual harassment, and threats of rape and murder on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak.
These women were targeted because of their campus activism surrounding the prevalence of sexual assault. In particular, anonymous abusers began harassing members of the group after they had raised concerns regarding a proposal to recognize fraternities on campus, given the relationship between fraternities and the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses throughout the US. Harassers and online predators were also of the incorrect belief that Feminists United was somehow responsible for the suspension of the men’s rugby team after an audio clip was given to the administration of team members chanting about rape, necrophilia and violence against women.
The university’s administration, including President Hurley, was aware of the over 700 “Yaks”, many of which directly threatened the women with physical harm, including rape, and yet failed to take any action to enforce Title IX and ensure the women’s safety, citing misguided First Amendment concerns.
In fact, UMW’s Title IX coordinator sent an email to the entire university community informing students that the school had “no recourse for such cyber bullying.” Throughout this entire ordeal, the app was being accessed through the university’s wireless internet.
“We feared for our safety and complained numerous times to President Hurley and university administrators, but UMW repeatedly failed to investigate our reports and took no action to address either the threats made against us, or the pervasive rape culture at school that allowed this behavior to go unchecked,” said Julia Michels, former President of Feminists United. “Even worse, when we tried to advocate for ourselves, President Hurley publicly retaliated against us, making us targets for yet another surge of online sex-based harassment.”
On May 7, 2015, the students, together with the Feminist Majority Foundation, filed a Title IX complaint with OCR. The next day, UMW issued a public statement denying the allegations and suggesting that the students made false accusations against the university, leading to an increase in anonymous Yik Yak attacks against the them.
A month later, President Hurley released a hostile letter to the entire campus community and numerous media outlets accusing the women, one of them by full-name, of making false claims in their OCR complaint. In the letter, which Hurley sent to numerous media outlets, he claimed that the women had overreacted to the threats of rape and murder. The letter was published in full by the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and other media outlets, and the Yik Yak attacks against the young women once again escalated.
Two years after filing the Title IX complaint with the Department of Education, OCR has yet to release any resolution. With a two year statute of limitations approaching, the lawyers representing the club, the young women, and the Feminist Majority Foundation pulled the OCR complaint and filed a federal lawsuit.
“It is outrageous that after two years, there has been no official response by OCR concerning the serious complaint,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Now, with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the Department of Education, the future of Title IX enforcement by OCR is even more uncertain. The students and the campus group, Feminists United, deserve justice. We have no choice but to go to federal court.”