Lawmakers advance efforts aiding survivors of sexual misconduct

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Capital News Service

LANSING –  Advocates are seeking to give survivors of sexual misconduct greater control over their stories by providing them with stronger privacy protections.

The House recently passed a bill preventing Freedom of Information Act requests from revealing the identity of alleged victims of sexual misconduct involved in civil cases. 

“Almost no sexual assault survivor brings a successful lawsuit, and part of it is because they know they have to put their name out there and it will be searchable. This is one way that could encourage people to bring lawsuits, which is one way that our culture holds people accountable and changes behavior,” said Elinor Jordan, the senior law and policy manager for the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

If a lawsuit requires the plaintiff to disclose information of a private nature, a survivor can file a motion to proceed under a pseudonym. While defendants often know the identity of the suing survivor, attorneys can communicate to clarify any confusion, Jordan said. 

However the survivor’s personal information is not always excluded from their court records.

One key thing for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence or child sexual abuse is controlling who gets to know what details of their story, Jordan said.

The public has a strong interest in sexual misconduct proceedings, and even when an article is written in service to the public, releasing a survivor’s story can lead to victim blaming in the comments, Jordan said.

As court records become more available it’s important to have these protections in place, Jordan said. 

This change in policy also covers related police reports, which have been used to uncover the names of survivors and bring the story to the public, Jordan said.

Supporters of the bill agreed on the importance of protecting survivor’s privacy.

“I believe in the news, but I also believe at some point victims need to be protected, and I do think in certain cases it can be more damaging if people aren’t able to proceed anonymously,” said Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, D-Southfield, the bill’s lead sponsor. 

While press advocates support openness in matters involving taxpayer dollars, these matters do not, said Lisa McGraw, the public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.

“I do believe we need to be particularly sensitive in order to not re-traumatize victims,” McGraw said.

On average, sexual assault costs survivors $122,461 over the course of their lifetime, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This stems from criminal-justice related costs, health conditions linked to rape victimization, property loss and damage during the offense and loss of work productivity from the survivor and perpetrator.

Many survivors don’t wish to see their assailant in prison, but do wish to see some form of justice, Jordan said.

“While it’s important to make sure we’re doing everything we can in the criminal space, I think it’s also important that we look at where we can protect people in the civil space as well,” Bolden said.

The more paths survivors have to seek justice in ways that make sense to them, the better and the more ways to hold perpetrators meaningfully accountable, the better, Jordan said.

The bill is among those crafted in response to the criminal sexual misconduct committed at Michigan State University by Larry Nassar, according to the House Fiscal Agency’s analysis of the bill. It passed the House with 96 votes in favor and six against, with seven representatives not voting.

The Freedom of Information Act already includes exemptions for invasions of privacy, so this policy change would strengthen and clarify how the exemption applies to survivors, said Steve Delie, the director of open government at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland.

These exemptions aren’t always applied. In one high-profile case, a video of the naked survivor’s assault was released through a Freedom of Information Act request, Jordan said.

We need to be explicit if we’re going to change the way perpetrators are held accountable in our culture, Jordan said.

Co-sponsors of the legislation included by multiple metro Detroit representatives and Reps. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette; Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon; Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township; Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing; Julie Calley, R-Portland; and Daire Rendon, R-Lake City. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

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