Georgia lawmaker targets guidelines on campus sexual assault

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ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia state lawmaker and his wife have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights, alleging that it is trying to "micromanage student sex lives" with its regulations on how colleges and universities should handle allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

The lawsuit filed by State Rep. Earl Ehrhart and his wife, Virginia, on Thursday claims that a 2011 letter the department's civil rights arm sent to schools has effectively imposed binding regulations without going through the necessary administrative procedures.

The letter was meant to help schools understand their obligations under federal law to prevent and respond to sexual violence. Instead, it has imposed burdensome requirements on schools that accept federal funding "in what is essentially an attempt to micromanage student sex lives," the lawsuit says.

A Department of Education spokesman said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Advocates complained for years that colleges and universities were failing to take reports of sexual assault seriously. The education department letter told schools they must promptly investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment and outlined specific procedures schools must follow.

It instructed schools to rely on the preponderance-of-evidence standard used in civil cases, instead of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard employed in criminal trials. That means a student can be disciplined if the college finds it more likely than not that an assault occurred.

Schools that don't comply could face investigation and lose federal funding. As of Wednesday, the Office for Civil Rights was investigating 224 sexual-violence cases at 178 colleges and universities across the nation.

The Education Department bypassed the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act but is still enforcing the letter's provisions as binding law, the lawsuit says. That makes the letter and all resulting disciplinary decisions "unconstitutional, arbitrary and void," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit adds that the letter has imposed "an unworkable regulatory framework" on Georgia colleges and universities that has led to unnecessary costs and expenses that are ultimately borne by taxpayers.

Ehrhart, an Atlanta-area Republican who chairs the Georgia House's higher education budget panel, has a stepson who is a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

He and his wife "have heard countless stories of young men being accused, investigated, and subsequently expelled from Georgia colleges and universities without being provided appropriate due process protections," the lawsuit says. They are particularly concerned about the fact that the accused student doesn't have the right to cross-examine the accuser.

They are concerned Virginia Ehrhardt's son and other male college students could be wrongly accused and punished under the letter's requirements, the lawsuit says. Therefore, they "are justifiably concerned that the money they have saved for college tuition and expenses could be lost and their son's reputation and career prospects irreparably damaged."

At a hearing this winter focused on sexual misconduct investigations at Georgia Tech, Ehrhart accused the school of violating students' due-process rights and warned university leaders that they needed to make changes or put requests for state funding at risk.

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and for a court to stop the Department of Education from continuing to enforce the letter's provisions.

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