Penn last revised its sexual violence policy 10 years ago. On Tuesday, Penn announced a rewriting of the policy. We commend Penn on the revision, in particular the updates to its definitions — which includes a more detailed definition of consent — and the inclusion of a list of support resources for victims of sexual violence.
Previously, the policy stated, “Assent shall not constitute consent if it is given by a person who because of … intoxication is unable to make a reasonable judgment concerning the nature of or harmfulness of the activity.” The updated version, in contrast, clarifies the definition by relying on the legal standard — which distinguishes between mere intoxication and incapacitation, which makes a person unable to consent — to determine whether a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol is able to give consent.
While the change is subtle, it serves two purposes. First, it brings Penn’s policy in line with Pennsylvania law. Second, it provides due process to ensure that claims of sexual assault are legitimate.
In addition, the updated list of resources for victims of sexual violence — which specifies whether each organization is available to students, faculty, staff or visitors — provides a starting point to access support systems, which are a necessary part of any sexual violence policy.
The University must take caution, however, that its finalized policy — which will be announced in the fall — respects due process rights. Some of Penn’s peer institutions have been criticized for overly broad sexual violence policies, which could leave students vulnerable to false accusations and incorrect verdicts. Given the gravity and consequences of being convicted of sexual assault — whether it be in a court of law or in a university investigation — Penn must take the utmost care to ensure the accuracy of decisions. A robust set of due process rights to protect both the accused and the accuser instills confidence in the community that the judgments reached by the University are clear, correct and final.
The University should create an ongoing community dialogue regarding reasonable ways to finalize and implement the revised policy — including the content of guidance materials, which will be released in the fall.
The University has taken a significant, positive first step to updating the policy. Its task now is to carefully weigh all the consequences — both intended and unintended — of its finalization and implementation.
The sexual assault policy impacts everything from the lab to the fraternity house basement. Penn needs to make certain the policy can fairly respond to all types of situations.