Florida A&M University is asking the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee to allow use of an anonymous rape victim's full name during trial. In response, the victim’s attorney has written a letter to Florida senators and representatives asking them to investigate FAMU’s attempts to expose the victim’s identity.
"Our interpretation of the action by Florida A&M University in the litigation is that they are trying to intimidate her to drop her claim by pushing an issue that they know is very sensitive, which is her anonymity," said Michael Dolce, a trail lawyer based in Palm Beach.
Dolce is representing the plaintiff in the case against Florida A&M University. Dolce says in his line of work he’s never come across a situation where a rape victim’s name was needed.
"In every single case I’ve ever handled, and every case I’m aware of -- every Title IX case I’m aware of across the country -- this has never happened," he said. "I’ve never known a university to pursue this litigation tactic."
FAMU is asking for the victim’s name to be disclosed because it claims initials would give jurors and the public the impression that a determination regarding the plaintiff’s status as a rape victim has already been made. FAMU also claims the move is necessary because all individuals and organizations who’ve been named in the case are receiving negative public scrutiny that will continue throughout the trial.
Another motion to strip the plaintiff’s anonymity was denied by a judge who blasted FAMU for its stance.
The university is now appealing, prompting Dolce to write to the Florida Legislature.
"I would like the Florida Legislature to determine who made the decision at FAMU to instigate this ongoing effort to reveal the identity of a rape victim and hold that person accountable. I would like them to direct FAMU to drop their appeal so we can go to trial and conduct that trial with my client’s anonymity intact," he said.
Stetson University Law professor, Jahanna Azarian, says FAMU’s move could pose a potential barrier to future sexual assault reporting.
“I think this will be a potential barrier to reporting for other individuals who may be victims and they’re afraid to come forward. A lot of times victims don’t want their name disclosed for a number of reasons," said Azarean.
Azarean says he can't think of many benefits for pressing the victim to drop her anonymity.
"I see it as intimidation. So again, a barrier to this individual, this victim to wanting to move forward with this case. Depending on the rules of evidence, they [FAMU] may be able to bring in other, you know is this person, do they have a propensity to sleep around?"
Dolce says his client is not suing FAMU for the sexual assault, just for its response, or lack of.
“What we sued Florida A&M University for was violation of Title IX, for failing to protect her after the fact, when she came back to campus authorities, 'I’ve been raped and I don’t want to be around this guy, I don’t want him in my classes, I don’t want him in my clubs, I don’t want him in the library. I want to be protected.' They failed to do that. That’s why they got sued for Title IX violation."
FAMU did not directly respond to the lawsuit, but in a statement it says, "Florida A&M University takes sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus very seriously.”
The statement goes on to detail six positions the university has added. One is a Title IX coordinator, Carrie Gavin, who Dolce says disagreed with FAMU’s stance when deposed in the case.
“FAMU’s own Title IX Coordinator has acknowledged under oath in this case that it’s expected mental health harm would result to a rape trauma survivor who wants to maintain their anonymity. Then we don’t understand why FAMU in terms of their legal position aren’t following that dictate," explained Dolce.
In Gavin's deposition, she stated that a rape victim's name being forced into public could have a negative impact on future reporting. She also said ensuring anonymity is important to the mental health and safety of victims who report sexual assault.
Azarean says asking for a victim's name to be released is simply not good practice.
“I see it as not the best practices in terms of title IX litigation. Especially when you’re at the beginning stages of reporting, anonymity is always key and always something that respondent and reporter really seek."
In Dolce’s letter to state senators and representatives, he says all efforts should be made to ensure that his client and future victims can report sex crimes without fear that FAMU or other state institutions will try to strip their privacy as rape survivors.