Student sues Harvard over its investigation into allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman off campus

The unnamed student contends in the lawsuit that Harvard does not have the authority to investigate the allegations made against him that took place “hundreds of miles away” from the university.

The John Harvard statue overlooks Harvard Yard, the oldest part of Harvard University's campus, in Cambridge, Mass., July 12, 2018. Harvard's arcane selection process has been illuminated by a lawsuit accusing the school of violating federal civil rights law by using racial balancing to shape its admissions in a way that discriminates against Asian-Americans. (Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times)
The John Harvard statue overlooks Harvard Yard, the oldest part of Harvard University's campus. –Gretchen Ertl / The New York Times

An undergraduate student at Harvard is suing the school for undertaking an investigation into allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman, claiming the university is overstepping its authority by taking up a campus disciplinary process against him since the alleged rape took place “hundreds of miles away” and doesn’t involve another Harvard student.

The student, identified only as “John Doe” in the civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, is calling for Harvard to stop its investigation and is seeking $75,000 in damages, according to the complaint.

In the lawsuit, Doe alleges that Harvard has disregarded its own policies and acted “arbitrarily, capriciously, maliciously,” and in “bad faith” with the decision to investigate the allegations against him:

[E]ach of these terms aptly describes Harvard’s decision to railroad Mr. Doe into a campus proceeding that could result in him being suspended or even expelled—even though the sexual assault alleged against him did not take place at or near any Harvard property (indeed, in took place hundreds of miles away from Harvard), did not take place during the academic year (indeed, it took place more than sixteen months ago and not in connection with any Harvard program), does not involve a complainant (or even any witness) with any connection to Harvard, and in fact apparently does not involve any other connection with Harvard whatsoever.

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A spokeswoman for Harvard declined to comment on the lawsuit or the temporary restraining order Doe filed against the university to halt the school’s investigation.

According to the lawsuit, Doe enrolled as an undergraduate in the college’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in August 2016 and during the summer of 2017 was “living in a city hundreds of miles away from Harvard, working at an internship.”

It was during that time that Doe met a woman, identified as “Jane Roe” in the lawsuit, who was also spending the summer in the city working as an intern. According to the suit, on the night of July 22, 2017, Doe went to a party at the apartment where Roe, who is not a Harvard student, was living with roommates, and the two engaged in sexual activity. Roe alleges she did not consent and that he raped her.

Doe’s suit called the allegations “categorically false.”

According to the lawsuit, Roe filed a complaint with the local police department, and prosecutors ultimately declined to prosecute the case. In March 2018, she filed a civil personal injury lawsuit against Doe, which remains pending.

In October, Doe learned that Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution was opening an investigation into “whether he had committed sexual assault in violation of Harvard’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment [Policy].”

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In the suit, Doe and his lawyers point out that the university’s sexual and gender-based harassment policy applies when misconduct occurs on Harvard property, if the conduct took place in connection with a school program or activity off-campus, or if the conduct “may have the effect of creating a hostile environment for a member of the University community.”

“Harvard’s proposed campus proceeding is not about vindicating or protecting Ms. Roe, or any other member of the Harvard community, because no one is claiming that Mr. Doe presents a danger to Ms. Roe while he is at Harvard (or elsewhere), nor does he present any danger to any other Harvard student,” the lawsuit states.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the college within the university where Doe is enrolled, has its own policy on sexual and gender-based harassment, which states the college has the expectation that all students will “behave in a mature and responsible manner” both on and off campus, stating that “sexual and gender-based misconduct are in direct opposition to our community values.”

“[S]exual and gender-based misconduct are not tolerated by the FAS even when, because they do not have the effect of creating a hostile environment for a member of the University community, they fall outside the jurisdiction of the University Policy,” the FAS policy reads.

In his suit, Doe alleges that the investigation undertaken by FAS cannot go beyond the jurisdiction of the university’s policy.  

“FAS’s decision to investigate Mr. Doe is causing, and will continue to cause, Harvard to be in violation of its own policy, not to mention is causing, and will continue to cause, Harvard to inflict substantial damage on Mr. Doe,” the lawsuit reads. “In short, Harvard has violated its own contractual and common law obligations— including the obligations embodied in its own sexual misconduct policies and procedures.”

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A hearing for the case is set for Dec. 11. 

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