Students who make false accusations of sexual assault are rarely punished on college campuses.
A high-profile recent example was “Jackie,” the woman who claimed to Rolling Stone magazine that she had been gang-raped at a fraternity initiation party, received no punishment from her school or local law enforcement for her action. Her name is shielded because she continues to insist she is a victim.
When someone is punished for a false accusation, it generally involves no more than a slap on the wrist. Now Lindenwood University, the St. Charles, Mo., police and a local judge have instigated an all-too-rare instance of punishment for an accuser who lied.
In March 2014, Lindenwood student Joanna Newberry claimed she had been assaulted in the basement bathroom of Butler Library. She told police that a man was hiding in one of the stalls, grabbed her from behind and attempted to undress her.
Newberry said she kicked the man, who then fled.
Lindenwood sent a campus-wide alert to its 12,000 students warning that police were investigating a sexual assault at the school. Newberry was interviewed by police five days later and admitted she had made up the whole thing.
Newberry was charged with filing a false police report, a misdemeanor, and faced up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Lindenwood dismissed the student, and then-university president Jim Evans issued a statement condemning her lie.
“Lindenwood is a safe campus, and we will be steadfast in our efforts to remove those who commit such crimes and mislead our student population, our faculty, and our staff,” Evans said at the time.
Now, two and a half years later, a court has placed Newberry on supervised probation for two years. She had previously – at the time she was charged – been ordered to get counseling. Associate Circuit Judge Elizabeth Swann made the decision, issuing a suspended imposition for Newberry, who had submitted an Alford plea — she wouldn’t admit guilt, but acknowledged that the evidence against her would lead to a conviction.
Much of this is good news. Newberry was dismissed from Lindenwood and put on probation. She received some punishment for her lie. She also hadn’t accused anyone specific, so an argument could be made that no one was personally hurt by her actions.
More broadly, though, false accusations harm those students – and others – who make legitimate accusations of sexual assault and other crimes. Liars like Newberry make honest victims less likely to be believed.
Other schools could learn from Lindenwood’s example, to ensure that false accusations are unacceptable.
Too often today, while the topic of sexual assault is discussed at length in the media and at college and universities, the discussion focuses around “listening and believing.” This creates an atmosphere on campus where false accusations can flourish, as students see no consequences for lying, even about felonies.
In this instance, Newberry accused an imaginary person. But the next student who makes a false accusation might be ruining the life of an innocent man or woman.