This week, the University of Virginia announced that it is reinstating the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The chapter was suspended when Rolling Stone published allegations that an undergraduate named Jackie was brutally gang-raped at one of its parties.
Rolling Stone's feature has since been discredited by commentators and news organizations including The Washington Post, which rigorously debunked its reporting. The debunking is consistent with the findings of police in Charlottesville, who've concluded that while Jackie may or may not have been raped or assaulted on the night in question, she was not attacked at Phi Kappa Psi.
Fortunately, no individual members of Phi Kappa Psi were named in the false allegations. It is nevertheless worth reflecting on the collective ordeal that they suffered when it was widely believed that many of them engaged in premeditated evil.
Prior to these allegations, the collegians were living in their frat house. After the publication of the Rolling Stone story, the young men began to receive hate emails, voicemails, and threats of violence. Angry protestors massed outside their house and shouted as if at gang-rapists. That alone must've seemed surreal and difficult to face, especially for a group of 18-to-22-year-olds. Then in the wee hours of one morning, vandals broke several frat house windows with chunks of cinder block and bottles and tagged the outside of the house. "This situation is just beginning," the perpetrators soon threatened in an anonymous letter. "We will escalate and we will provoke until justice is achieved for the countless victims of rampant sexual violence at this University and around the nation." Needless to say, the vandals achieved no justice for rape victims by victimizing these young men.
The college students living in the frat house ultimately fled to different living quarters, even as they were trying to wind up their academic work for the semester. "Our brothers are obviously concerned with their personal safety and the safety of the house,” fraternity president Stephen Scipione told the student newspaper. Meanwhile, people were shouting "rapist" at fraternity members on campus. Men in Phi Kappa Psi were presumably questioned by police in the course of their investigation. Alumni from the frat asked themselves if the institution to which they once belonged had morphed into a venue for gang rape and felt stigma for their bygone association. Parents of members were stressed and upset too, whether because they felt their sons were being unfairly maligned or worried that they'd joined a fraternity that conducts gang rapes as a matter of course.
The fact that Phi Kappa Psi's membership was falsely accused of this crime does not mean that most rape accusations are false–the opposite is true–or that there isn't a need to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults that happen on college campuses, even granting that some activists overstate the number of victims.
It should be possible to push for reforms that would reduce the too-high number of rape victims while advocating against rushes to judgment in individual cases. All credible rape accusations should be investigated. Before the results are in the accuser should have the private support of friends and various resources. But nothing is gained when angry mobs with no particular knowledge of a case gather en masse to shout epithets at people who weren't even accused as individuals.
In Charlottesville, young men were attacked by folks so certain about their guilt that they hurled objects through their windows and threatened their safety. Yet even now that they've been exonerated, there is little acknowledgment that the boys were wronged or sense that the people who wronged them should apologize. Why? Even if their antagonists had good intentions, the young men look to be innocent of the gang-rape accusation in the Rolling Stone story—and that's what matters.
UVA's student newspaper is an exception. Its editorial on Phi Kappa Psi's reinstatement noted that many sexual assaults at UVA go uninvestigated or unpunished, and that there is reason to believe more protections are needed on campus. "What we can be certain of is this," the student editorial continued. "There is no justice in a case which accuses a party that did not commit the crime in question. Phi Kappa Psi was undeservingly condemned and threatened by a community which did not wait until the facts of the case were investigated to issue judgment. But due process must work for both parties—accused and complainant. The community is only made safer if the correct offender is apprehended."
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