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When Legal Justice Feels Out Of Reach For Sexual Assault Survivors, Some Say Social Media Fills The Gap

Renee Bright

Earlier this summer, 21-year-old Maya Micheli took to Twitter to share their story of an alleged sexual assault using the hashtag #UtahRapists. It’s a way some Utahns are compiling lists of alleged perpetrators and a place to share these difficult stories.

Micheli said more than a dozen people messaged them about their own experiences with the alleged assailant. Another thing they all had in common? None of them pursued legal action against the man.

Micheli felt the criminal justice system would not have supported them and posted their story with the hopes that some other form of justice, like the alleged assailant losing his job, might come from it.

Reporting To Law Enforcement

Micheli said, at the time of their assault, they were in high school and didn’t want the scrutiny that can come with pursuing a criminal case.

“I definitely had things on social media that were inappropriate in a lot of people's eyes, inappropriate in my eyes,” they said. “I know if I would have pursued that, the police would have found [them] and then they would have blamed me because I'm a ‘slut.’”

University of Utah Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman said that’s a big reason why just around 75% of sexual assault survivors don’t report the assualt to law enforcement, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Rape cases are quite unique to other violent crimes,” Baughman said.

When your house is robbed, she said, no one asks “Were your lights on? Did you lock your doors?”

In contrast with rape situations — I think victims get a lot of questions,” Baughman said. ‘Where were you? Who is this guy?’ It makes them feel judged or blamed and also gives them more scrutiny.”

That scrutiny doesn’t seem worth it to many survivors, Baughman said, when 67% of reported cases lead to an arrest, according to 2018 data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Some Utahns are sharing stories of sexual assault on social media and compiling lists of alleged perpetrators under the hashtag #UtahRapists. The idea is to empower survivors and spread awareness, and the concept dates back far before social media.

Read the full story.

Social Media Libel

Sharing the names of alleged perpetrators has been happening since the 1970s, according to University of Utah Professor Chris Linder, who studies sexual assault on college campuses. The practice’s migration to social media means it's easier for survivors to find each other, but it’s also easier for the movement to lose steam when alleged assailants threaten to sue for defamation or libel.

“It's much easier for these accounts and these trends to get shut down because it's more easily identifiable who the people are doing it,” Linder said. “Then they end up having to close down the accounts or stop posting for fear of being sued.”

However, University of Utah Law Professor RonNell Andersen Jones said it can be really hard for people to win libel lawsuits.

“The person suing for libel has to prove that it's false and that can be complicated,” she said. “Having to prove a negative is a difficult thing, and it’s not something we require in a lot of legal contexts.”

But, she said, because lawsuits can mean big legal bills for both parties, most people who get sued either settle or remove the content after being served with a cease and desist letter.

Utah does, however, have something called anti-SLAPP laws that try to prevent those situations.

“They are statutes that are specifically designed by state legislatures to make sure that you really do have a good claim of libel before you can move forward with a libel suit and require somebody to face the significant burden of defending a libel action,” Jones said.

Micheli said they haven’t been contacted about taking down their posts and they’re not afraid of a lawsuit.

“If I can prove at least one or two of us were actually assaulted by him, then there's no way that he would win — right?” they said. “Honestly, I would rather have this be talked about than to have it be something hidden.”

KUER contacted the family of Micheli’s alleged perpetrator. They said the accusations were false and declined to give any further comment for this story.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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