Duke’s Office of News and Communications has posted what amounts to an official version of the lacrosse case and the University’s response to it. Unsurprisingly, the essay casts the administration’s actions in a wholly positive light.
The ONC document opens by noting AG Roy Cooper’s proclamation of innocence. It then identifies the villains of the case:
- Nifong: “Cooper spoke of a ‘rush to accuse’ and said ‘there were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado’”;
- The media: “In one of the many similar judgments made about how the news media covered the case, columnist David Broder described ‘a painful exercise in journalistic excess.’”
(The document also takes note of “extensive commentaries on blogs and tabloid television shows.” Given that in January, President Brodhead had linked blogs with vile anonymous e-mails, I suppose being linked with tabloid television shows is a step up.)
The ONC report contains five principal sections: the administration’s record of upholding the accused players’ presumption of innocence; the cancellation of the 2006 lacrosse season; the significance of Jim Coleman’s opinions on the case; the standards the administration offered for when a University should comment on legal matters; and the effects of the case on Duke.
Today’s post examines the first of these issues; tomorrow’s will look at the other four.
From his first statement in March 2006, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead repeatedly emphasized both the seriousness of the charges and the need for the players to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise within the legal system.
This assertion does not accurately describe two of Brodhead’s key statements from April 2006.
(1) In Brodhead’s April 5, 2006 statement—the president’s final remarks on the case before the first two indictments—he announced the cancellation of the season, the dismissal of Coach Mike Pressler, and the formation of five investigative committees. This statement included no reference to a presumption of innocence, although it spoke of the seriousness of the charges at length, and in passionate terms. The statement opened with four paragraphs based on the thesis that
we can’t be surprised at the outpouring of outrage. Rape is the substitution of raw power for love, brutality for tenderness, and dehumanization for intimacy. It is also the crudest assertion of inequality, a way to show that the strong are superior to the weak and can rightfully use them as the objects of their pleasure. When reports of racial abuse are added to the mix, the evil is compounded, reviving memories of the systematic racial oppression we had hoped to have left behind us . . . Compounding and intensifying these issues of race and gender, they include concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society—inequalities of wealth, privilege, and opportunity (including educational opportunity), and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed. And they include concerns that, whether they intend to or not, universities like Duke participate in this inequality and supply a home for a culture of privilege. The objection of our East Campus neighbors was a reaction to an attitude of arrogant inconsiderateness that reached its peak in the alleged event but that had long preceded it.
Meanwhile, in its 2,399 words, the April 5 statement made no mention of presumption of innocence. The closest it came to even entertaining the possibility that Crystal Mangum was lying came in the following two sentences:
I assure you, however, that the Duke disciplinary system will be brought to bear as soon as this can appropriately be done. Until that time, I urge us to be patient and remind ourselves that allegations have been made, the team has denied them, and we must wait until the authorities act before reaching any judgment in the criminal case.
I don’t think that many people would seriously argue that those sentences constituted “emphasizing” a presumption of innocence.
(2) On April 20, 2006, Brodhead made his first public appearance after the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. He informed the Durham Chamber of Commerce, “If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.”
There were, however, victims in the case, according to the president: “This has been such a difficult issue for our campus and throughout the community . . . Of the things that have pained me about this episode, one of the greatest ones is all the publicity that this has brought, unwished to
Again, I don’t think that many people would seriously argue that those sentences constituted “emphasizing” a presumption of innocence.
In his first two statements on the case, on the other hand, Brodhead did affirm his support for the presumption of innocence.
On March 25, 2006, he asserted, “The facts are not yet established, however, and there are very different versions of the central events. No charges have been filed, and in our system of law, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. We also know that many members of the team, including some who were asked to provide DNA samples, did not attend the party.” These 58 words comprised 33 percent of the total statement—the highest percentage dealing with a presumption of innocence in any Brodhead statement for months.
Yet none of the newspapers that covered the statement—the N&O, the Herald-Sun, the Chronicle, or the AP—quoted the remarks above. (The H-S paraphrased it, while the Chronicle mentioned but didn’t quote Brodhead’s assertion that not all team members attended the party. The N&O and AP didn’t quote or reference the three sentences at all.) Perhaps that was because the three sentences were overshadowed both by the abrupt cancellation of the
If, as the ONC document now claims, Brodhead was determined to emphasize “both the seriousness of the charges and the need for the players to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise within the legal system,” he might have adjusted his subsequent statements to guard against any media misrepresentation. Instead, by April 5, comments about the presumption of innocence had vanished entirely. Over the next two months, Brodhead would label the lacrosse players “arrogant,” “dishonorable,” “disrespectful,” and “irresponsible”; say their behavior was “heinous,” “highly inappropriate,” and “unacceptable”; and blast the team’s “culture of privilege.”
Even Duke’s own official publications paid little attention to the president’s increasingly pro forma comments about the presumption of innocence.
Take, for instance, the Office of News and Communication summary of the March 28, 2006 press conference in which Brodhead announced the indefinite suspension of the season. Brodhead’s remarks paralleled those of March 25 (he used the same words in many places); both contained sizable chunks dealing with a presumption of innocence. Yet the ONC summary—entitled, “Brodhead: ‘It Is Not the Time to Be Playing Games’”—didn’t mention the president commenting on presumption of innocence. The Duke document did, however, quote the president saying, “Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and will not be tolerated at Duke. As none of us would choose to be the object of such conduct, so none of us has the right to subject another person to such behavior. Since they run counter to such fundamental values, the claims against our players, if verified, will warrant very serious penalties, both from the university and in the courts.”
The longest official Duke summary of the lacrosse situation was Robert Bliwise’s “Spring of Sorrows” article, which appeared in the May/June Duke Magazine, an official University publication sent to all Duke alumni. In more than 6000 words, Bliwise never claimed that Brodhead emphasized “the need for the players to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise within the legal system.” In fact, Bliwise never mentioned Brodhead even uttering the phrase presumption of innocence. Instead, the Duke publication quoted liberally from Brodhead’s April 5 statement.
It would seem that if Brodhead wanted to emphasize his commitment to the presumption of innocence, he could have ensured that official Duke publications made the point.
In his July 25 letter to Friends of Duke, meanwhile, Brodhead stated that “we are eager for our students to be proved innocent.” Of course, a presumption of innocence presumes that the accused don’t need to be proved innocent.
People of good faith can disagree on the merits of Brodhead’s original approach to the case. As Jim Coleman has pointed out, an excessively aggressive defense of the accused students by the Duke administration could very well have backfired.
But it’s hard to see how the record above could support an assertion that a “presumption of innocence” was “emphasized” by the administration throughout the case.