The politics of naming a victim

The impeachment of UTSU VP campus life was trial by Facebook

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently, when it comes to sexual assault.

Over the winter break, we published a breaking news story about how UTSU VP campus life had been publicly accused of sexual assault—or attempted assault, depending on how the allegations are understood.

The accusations were made on Facebook by the victim of the alleged assault. In a lengthy post that also contained screenshots of a private chat with VP campus life Askhan Bansal, the author called on people to share the post “widely”. The post was later taken down for unknown reasons, but its content remains available on Reddit at press time.

After we published our story and posted it to The Medium’s Facebook page, the student who made the allegations commented on our post that we should have asked permission to use the student’s name.

To be clear, at the time when the article was published, the student’s original Facebook allegations were visible to the public with the author’s name. It was a no-brainer that the post was indeed a public one and its contents were public information.

Indeed, when UTSU issued a statement the same day calling on its board of directors to impeach Bansal, the union referred to the accusations of sexual assault against the VP as a “public allegation”.

In other words, it was understood that the contents of  the Facebook post are public information. Whether that changes after the post was removed from Facebook, I’m dubious of, since it had been viewed enough to get a large organization to make such a strong statement in response.

As examined in our cover story this week, UTSU proceeded to impeach Bansal in a decisive vote at its board meeting. The decision came  without an investigation into the truth of the allegations. According to UTSU VP external Jasmine Denike, UTSU is “not a court” and they don’t have “a right to conduct” an investigation.

UTSU may very well not be a court, but I do believe they had the onus of verifying the claims before taking action.

Denike claims that UTSU does not accuse Bansal of the allegations, but made their decision out of a desire to “stand by the mandate of the union” and “make sure that students remembered that the union is a safe space”. So it seems that the reputation of the union took precedence to giving Bansal the benefit of being presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In all fairness, UTSU has mentioned that the impeachment comes as a result of multiple issues with the VP, but it’s clear from the union’s public statements that the recent Facebook allegations were a major push towards the decision. Even Denike doesn’t say that Bansal would have definitely been impeached if it weren’t for the allegations.

So for Bansal, his name has been published in multiple articles about the unproven allegations along with his photo. But his accuser remains unnamed for the most part.

Taking a look at practices in the media on naming victims, it seems that it’s generally the case that when it comes to sexual assault, the media is either banned from naming the accuser or doesn’t name them out of ethical considerations for the individual’s well being.

A 2014 article in the Toronto Star entitled “Should sexual assault victims still be kept anonymous?” says regarding two people charged with sexual assault, “Their names and photos have been widely circulated since the charges were first laid years ago, but outside of that courtroom, no one knows the identity of the accusers.

“And because of a publication ban on their identities, most people never will.”

There is some disagreement on this practice, including the argument that the more we name victims of sexual assault, the better we can address the stigma associated with it. The article continues, “With only one name and face to report in the media, criminal defence lawyers say the publication bans impede the presumption of innocence because their clients get convicted in the court of public opinion before their trial ever starts.”

Hmm. Sounds like Bansal’s case was a trial by Facebook.

For our part, although we’ve already named the accuser in our first article on the issue, the decision not to name her again in this week’s story was a difficult one. When we reached out to the student for comment on the story, the student specifically requested that her name not be used out of consideration for her health and wellbeing.

If we wanted our coverage to be balanced in that we presumed the innocence of both parties involved, it became apparent that we should give due consideration to the potential stigma and trauma that could result from continuing to name the accuser should the allegations prove to be true. So we didn’t publish the name in this week’s article. At the end of the day, it came down to  a desire not to presume guilt for either party.

It remains a fact that Bansal’s name has already been widely propagated in reference to the allegations and that he’s lost his position largely because of them. How is it fair to presume the innocence of the accuser and not giving the same benefit to the accused?

Whatever actually happened remains unclear, but what has come to light is that there was a dramatic imbalance of justice in this case that led to the presumption of Bansal’s guilt rather than innocence.

I expected better of UTSU.

Maria Iqbal

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