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On Sexual Assault, Is Presumption of Guilt Going Mainstream?

The former First Lady received an unexpected—and no doubt unwelcome—question on the campaign trail today. The Free Beacon reports:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was asked Thursday in New Hampshire whether the alleged sexual abuse or harassment victims of her husband should be believed, given her recent tweet on the matter.

“You recently came out to say that all rape victims should be believed? But would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones? Should we believe them as well?” the audience member asked.

“Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence,” Clinton said, drawing applause.

Of course, the term “be believed” is ambiguous—believed by whom, and in what context, and to what effect? If Clinton simply means that those who say they have been assaulted deserve a respectful and serious hearing, or that they should be supported by friends, that’s of course correct. But, in the context of her other remarks on this issue, Clinton may implicitly be endorsing the work of the controversial campus tribunals, which all too often require accused students to prove their innocence in violation of the fundamental principles of due process.

For our part, we believe that “innocent until proven guilty” has served American society well for hundreds of years, and bad things tend to happen when it is tossed aside. Protecting civil liberties doesn’t mean suppressing alleged victims—it just means that the authorities must take accusations seriously, conduct a thorough investigation, and, yes, prove that someone is guilty of wrongdoing before meting out official sanctions (or before others push social sanctions and shaming).

This story is a reminder of the power of campus politics to reshape the mainstream discourse. The notion that people who make an accusation of sexual assault “must be believed,” has spread from campuses to the media (remember the Rolling Stone debacle) to the highest levels of American politics. It’s important to take the kinds of ideas being floated by campus activists seriously—no matter how outlandish they might initially seem.

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