Metro

Harvard student drops suit over college’s investigation into out-of-state rape claim

Reuters/File

A Harvard University student who sued to try to stop the school from investigating allegations that he raped a woman hundreds of miles from campus has dropped his case.

The university intends to continue its investigation into the allegation after the next semester begins Jan. 21, through a different office than had originally been investigating the claim.

The student, called John Doe in the suit he filed in US District Court, had denied the rape claim, which arose after an out-of-state sexual encounter in July 2017 with a woman who was not a Harvard student. The suit he filed in November argued that, under Harvard’s sexual and gender-based harassment policy, the university lacked the authority to investigate misconduct so far afield.

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That policy covers student misconduct on and off campus — but only if it occurs within programs connected to the university and only if it creates a hostile environment for someone in the community.

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“Mr. Doe continues to believe that Harvard lacks the authority to impose its campus disciplinary process on him for alleged conduct that did not involve another Harvard student, did not occur during any Harvard-sponsored activity or event, and that took place hundreds of miles from campus,” a court status report on the case said in mid-December.

Justin Dillon, Doe’s lawyer, declined to comment on why he dropped the case.

Harvard maintained that it had the authority to look into an allegation of troubling student behavior no matter where it occurred under a second policy that covers the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

That much more stringent policy covers sexual and gender-based misconduct even if not prohibited by the university-wide policy and notes that Harvard students are expected to “behave in a mature and responsible manner” wherever they are. It also allows for cases of alleged misconduct to be referred to Harvard’s Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, the one that handles Title IX claims for the university. The school’s Title IX investigator began looking into Doe’s case in October after learning of the claim against him, court documents said.

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Title IX is the federal regulation that protects every student’s right to an education free from sex discrimination.

The Obama administration had aggressively pushed universities to take campus rape seriously and issued guidance that had led colleges to revamp their disciplinary processes for sexual misconduct allegations. For years, men’s rights groups and civil liberties attorneys have said that tilted the balance of justice too heavily in favor of accusers, leaving students accused of misbehavior little opportunity to defend themselves.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rewritten the regulations insisting on more due process, sparking concerns by women’s and victims’ rights groups that the balance will now be shifted too favorably toward the accused.

The federal government is seeking public comment on the Title IX rule proposed by DeVos through Jan. 28.

Doe had seized upon criticism of the still-intact Title IX regulation, arguing that the college was overreaching and acting in bad faith, and that he would not get a fair hearing.

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He also claimed Harvard was violating its own contractual obligations because the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had no authority to pursue the case under the university’s own policy.

However, the university maintained that while the Title IX office was not obligated to investigate Doe’s claim, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Administrative Board was permitted to do so under its own policy, which even allows for referral of cases to the Title IX office for investigation.

That policy states that sexual misconduct won’t be tolerated even when it’s not explicitly covered by the university’s policy, or when it doesn’t have the effect of creating a hostile environment for someone else at the university.

“Because sexual and gender-based misconduct are in direct opposition to our community values, cases involving such conduct may be referred by the relevant Administrative Board (“Ad Board”) to the Harvard University Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) for investigation in accordance with the University Procedures and the jurisdictional guidelines described in this Policy,” Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said in an e-mail.

Ultimately, the court never weighed in on Harvard’s authority to investigate through the Title IX office. Judge Indira Talwani had signaled that Harvard could indeed investigate under its Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy, but she was still awaiting briefs from both sides on whether that college had the authority to refer the case to be investigated by the Office for Dispute Resolution.

Harvard asked the judge to dismiss the complaint last month, arguing that he had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted and calling his claim “baseless.” In that motion, Harvard lawyers noted they had notified Doe that his case would only be referred to the Office for Dispute Resolution with Doe’s consent.

“In the absence of such consent, the FAS Ad Board will simply proceed with the investigation of Plaintiff’s alleged off-campus sexual misconduct in a manner that is consistent with its own published rules and procedures,” the motion stated.

However, Dane, the spokeswoman, said there was no concession of change on Harvard’s part.

“The Plaintiff unilaterally decided to voluntarily dismiss himself, rather than respond to our motion,” she said.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.