Social Media Coverage of Sexual Harassment and the “Me Too” Hashtag

When the #MeToo campaign was launched in October 2017, it caused a phenomenal increase in media coverage of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In less than 24 hours, Facebook logged more than 12 million Likes and comments related to the topic, indicating an increased awareness of these issues. But has #MeToo – or social media’s ability in general – also led to increased arrests and convictions?

In an informal online search, it appears that none of the cases reported in the media last year involving celebrities and high-profile politicians have resulted in arrests or convictions. National criminal victimization statistics for 2017 (since the hashtag was launched) won’t be available for a few more months. However, some agencies report a recent rise in inquiries, and it is reasonable to believe increased online discussion could lead to more arrests simply because more people are feeling confident about coming forward.

It also is reasonable to believe that increased encouragement to report sex crimes could lead to a rise in incidences of false arrest and false accusation, because the accusers and the accused often define sexual contact and sex crimes differently. In a legal case, what matters is how the law defines a crime and the ability of a sexual assault attorney to provide valid evidence.

Increased Reporting of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

Since the #MeToo launch, there is no doubt that social media has become a forum for people to come forward and acknowledge their experiences and tell their stories of alleged sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents.

The Omaha World Herald recently reported that one of several women who accused an Omaha massage therapist of sexual assault said she was happy to see sexual assault being taken more seriously. “This is exactly why reporting is so important,” she said. “It gives other women a platform and a voice to share their stories.”

In February 2018, the Washington Post reported that the national Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund fielded more than 1,000 requests for assistance in its first month of operation. The defense fund was created by celebrities and activists “to connect those who have experienced workplace sexual misconduct with legal aid.” In the same article, a spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said that her agency has been “inundated” with requests.

Local and national events add to evidence of increased awareness and activity related to these infractions since Me Too.

A few examples:

  • In Omaha, a Twitter chat was held to discuss the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking. The chat was sponsored by the Methodist Hospital and Methodist Women’s Hospital Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program.
  • The Women’s Center for advancement in Omaha hosted a panel discussion to promote awareness of sexual assault.
  • An Omaha World Herald staff writer reported a list of sexual misconduct allegations against men in Hollywood.

Presumably as a result of the increased activity, through national media and social media many are calling for social change – to create a world in which it is not okay to sexually harass or assault someone and where we all agree on the definition of assault and harassment.

However, creating social change is different from officially charging, trying, defending, and convicting individuals accused of sexual assault. Those who have been accused may care just as much as anyone about creating a better society, but once they are accused their focus necessarily turns to defense.

Barriers to Arrest and Conviction for Sex Crimes

Defense against sexual assault or sexual harassment claims often begin with the definitions and limitations provided in law.

Within the United States legal system, criminal and civil laws exist to protect the rights of all citizens, including both the victim of a crime and the accused. These laws provide a needed barrier to haphazard accusation, false arrest and conviction. The laws help the courts be as sure as possible that someone accused of a crime actually did commit the crime.

Regarding rape and other sexual assault crimes, a number of definitions and limitations have been put into place within our legal systems to both protect the accuser and help ensure that an accused person has access to a fair trial and is not falsely accused. In the event a person is convicted of committing one of these crimes, our legal system protects the right of the accused to reasonable consequences. Both sides deserve to have their voice heard.

Legal safeguards in cases of sexual assault include:

  • Law enforcement UCR standards. As informed by federal, state, and local laws, police departments may write specific definitions for use in determining whether a sexual harassment arrest or sexual assault arrest should take place. In January 2017 (before Me Too), the Omaha Police Department rewrote its definition of rape to include all sexual assaults, not just “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” as it is described in the old definition. The new definition is patterned after a revised definition in FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) standards.
  • Statutes of limitations. Federal law contains a deadline of 180 days on filing a written charge of discrimination with the EEOC. This may be what’s keeping some accusers from bringing charges for sexual harassment. Many incidents reported in traditional and social media since Me Too took place long ago. This written charge is required to sue someone under federal anti-discrimination laws. Some states extend the deadline to 300 days.
  • Standards of Evidence. For a conviction to take place in criminal court, sex crimes must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, but this type of crime can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. For that reason, some sexual assault cases are tried in civil court, where the standard of proof for a crime is preponderance of evidence and penalties involve the payment of money instead of time in prison.
  • Definition of Consent. One of the most important legal tests for sexual assault is consent. The burden is on the accused to prove consent. The law contains several other tests that accusations must withstand before specific crimes can be proven. A Berry Law blog recently outlined the legal tests for false imprisonment.

Definition of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

Both federal and state laws govern these crimes. The type of assault or harassment and the ultimate harm done, as well as other details of each individual case, are taken into consideration when determining whether a crime has been committed and what the punishment should be.

  • U.S. Code 920, Art. 120 contains extensive definitions of rape, sexual assault and a variety of different types of sexual assault and related terms. This part of U.S. legal code also provides definitions of specific situations that constitute consent and lack of consent.
  • Nebraska Statute 28-317 through 28-322 defines crimes related to sexual assault, including sexual assault of a minor and statutory rape. The definition of sexual assault for the purpose of determining whether a crime has been committed includes proving that the accused caused “great bodily injury” or “extreme mental anguish.”

Much of the law is left up to interpretation, and those accused may want to consider consulting a sex crimes attorney to help them determine a defense based on details of the case.

Legal Penalties May not be the Most Damaging Consequences

Some advocates say an emphasis on harassment and rape arrest won’t help, because societal change needs to come at the moment of decision of the person considering sexual contact. Advocates are also concerned that pushing legal remedies for sexual assault might result in a greater proportion of false arrests and convictions – especially of low-income and disadvantaged populations. They point to other approaches they feel may be more effective, such as mental health and parenting supports, job assistance and counseling services.

It’s hard to say what might change society. At some level, the threat of arrest, sex offender registration, and jail for sexual harassment and assault probably does serve as a deterrent. However, even if a person isn’t arrested or convicted, social media coverage could cause embarrassment and loss of reputation. For some, social media and traditional media accusations could lead to internal investigations and subsequent loss of jobs, government positions and other privileges. For example, the Met Opera this week fired director James Levine, “finding ‘credible evidence’ of ‘sexually abusive’ conduct.”

If you or someone you know has been accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment, call the Berry Lawand make an appointment for an experienced sex crimes attorney to hear your story.

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