An open letter from Sujit Choudhry about sexual harassment

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Lauren Glasby/Senior Staff

Read an editor’s note about this op-ed here.

To the students of the UC Berkeley School of Law:

Last week, I went to work in my office on campus. I understand that this has caused some of you confusion or even alarm. I know many of you thought I had been banned from campus. But even in times of controversy, and in fact especially in times of controversy, the facts still matter. The undisputed fact is that I am not and have never been banned from campus. There is not, and has never been, any legal or factual basis for banning me. I have the right to go to work. I am exercising that right, peacefully and unobtrusively.

In the spring of 2015, the evening before she went on leave, Tyann Sorrell sent me an email in which, for the first time, she complained to me about my conduct toward her. She assured me in her email that “I know you don’t mean anything by it, other than, perhaps, a warm and friendly greeting.” She described me as having “pure intentions.” She said that she assumed I meant nothing by my gestures and, for that reason, she had never before signaled her discomfort. She did not allege — and she has never alleged — that my actions were of a sexual intent. When I read the email, I was shocked. I was embarrassed. I immediately ceased the conduct. I apologized. I was, and remain, extremely sorry that I had put her in an uncomfortable position. I reacted in this way precisely because, as she knew, I meant nothing by my gestures.

In the following months, I cooperated sincerely and fully with the university’s internal investigation — an investigation that the university itself has described as thorough and appropriate. I received an investigative report that concluded, correctly, that I was unconscious of my actions toward Ms. Sorrell. The report made many factual findings that I contested then and which I contest to this day. But I accepted the report in an effort to take responsibility for my actions, to learn from what had happened and to try to enable both Ms. Sorrell and myself to move on. And I accepted the report in exchange for a complete set of sanctions that the university handed down to me through then-executive vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele — sanctions that the entire campus leadership, including Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his legal advisers, described as “warranted and appropriate for this situation.” By accepting the settlement offered to me by university leadership, I also made the judgment call not to exercise a number of rights available to me under university policy, which, in real and practical terms, I cannot effectively exercise now. I abided by and fulfilled every term of that sanction, including by apologizing in writing to Ms. Sorrell — an apology that, unbeknownst to me, the university literally put in a drawer and failed to provide to Ms. Sorrell for roughly two months.

This past March, Ms. Sorrell launched a lawsuit against the university and me. For days, the lawsuit was international news, and my picture appeared online, in print and on local television. My family was besieged for weeks by media from around the world. Four days after the lawsuit was commenced, I learned, through an article in a newspaper, that UC President Janet Napolitano had directed Dirks to ban me from campus and initiate a second, “do-over” disciplinary process against me, and that she had earlier called my behavior “groping.”

The public response was fast and furious. Petitions were circulated calling for me to be fired. I was called a rapist on Twitter. A leading national newspaper accused me of “forcibly kissing” Ms. Sorrell (it retracted that statement later). Another newspaper called me a “predator.” My 11-year-old daughter learned about the lawsuit from the internet on her school computer. She read racist online comments about me that she cannot erase from her mind. My wife developed serious health problems. I became too frightened to leave my own home, an exiled pariah. I watched helplessly as my reputation as an academic administrator, a scholar, a husband, a father and a friend crumbled in a matter of days.

The university has now launched a second disciplinary process against me, more than a year after the initial complaint was made and many months after the first process concluded with a full, complete, “warranted and appropriate” sanction. The public reaction to my case has everything to do with the university’s unprecedented effort to launch this “do-over” investigation. That public reaction was also fueled by the university’s handling of other sexual harassment investigations within the UC system. While I understand that context and share in the community’s concern that the university must be a respectful and inclusive environment, it is a fact that my case has been handled in an unprecedented manner because of the conduct of others and the administration’s desire to deflect attention away from itself.

Although neither Ms. Sorrell nor the university’s investigators considered my conduct to be sexual or predatory in intent, that fact — that uncontested fact — has, remarkably, fallen by the wayside in the rush to condemn me. I am a loving husband and father to two young children, as well as a scholar with a long career in academia, and I have never been accused of any misconduct — sexual or otherwise — in my life before this case. I have supervised women employees and research assistants, and I have taught women law students, for 18 years, and no other woman has made an allegation against me nor has any come forward after Ms. Sorrell’s allegations.

Let’s be clear: Sexual violence of all forms is horrendous and never, ever acceptable. I share and agree with your instinctive reaction to protect and support victims of sexual predation everywhere. Let’s also be clear on this: I acted with no sexual intent toward Ms. Sorrell. I am not a predator and have never been accused of being one until now. In the face of public hysteria, I am the predator who never was, purportedly subject to a campus ban that never was.

At Berkeley Law, we train you to think carefully, to weigh and evaluate information, to gather and consider all of the evidence, deliberately and impartially. Not to draw hasty conclusions based on lopsided readings of partial, or contested, records, even when you have strong feelings on the issue. To establish and defend thoughtful procedures that are fair and even-handed, that apply to everyone and that do not prejudge matters, no matter how horrible those matters may sound when they first become public. To evaluate people and events based on reason and justice, not instinct and passion. I ask you to rededicate yourself to those principles now.

My most sincere hope is that you will take the time to understand the truth in this matter. That, recognizing that you do not know all the facts and cannot at this stage, you will refrain from judgment. That you will not sign the next online petition calling for my head so hastily. That you will not go on social media and hurl invective at me. That you will leave me in peace and let me go to work, as is my legal right. And that you will draw your conclusions based not on your justified concerns about sexual violence, which I share, but on a measured and objective review of all of the evidence, and the principle, central to the profession into which you plan to one day seek admission — that there is more than one side to every story.

Sujit Choudhry is the former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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