CHAPEL HILL — Pressure built Friday for the UNC-Chapel Hill student court to drop a charge against Landen Gambill, a sophomore who was accused of intimidating an ex-boyfriend after she spoke out about sexual assault.
About 200 people gathered at the center of campus to protest the university’s handling of sexual assault cases. Several dozen carried placards and whistles to show their support for Gambill, who has been called a whistleblower for joining several other women in filing a federal complaint against UNC-CH in January.
“It is our responsibility as members of a community to hold ourselves and our neighbors accountable for upholding the status quo, which currently entitles the perpetrators of violence to greater protection than is granted to survivors,” said Sarah Kathryn Bryan, a second-year student. “We each have a moral duty to create a hostile environment for rapists.”
Meanwhile, the attorney for Gambill’s ex-boyfriend defended his client, saying the UNC-CH student has suffered from widespread media coverage of her claims that he raped her. Though Gambill has not identified her ex-boyfriend by name, some people on campus know who he is, Charlotte lawyer John Gresham said.
Gresham said his client worries about where he walks on campus. He just wants to return to normalcy, Gresham said, “one of 20,000 students who are proud to be Tar Heels and get a good education, without having to look over his shoulder or take different routes and have people go with him and worry that tomorrow his name is going to appear on some website as a rapist.”
Gresham said his client filed the honor code complaint because the sexual assault allegations have created a stressful and difficult atmosphere for him at UNC-CH. The student was suspended last year but was later unanimously found not guilty of two charges of sexual misconduct against Gambill, his lawyer says. The proceeding was handled by a panel of two students, two faculty members and one administrator through an interim process while the university revamped its policy on sexual assaults. Gresham said his client was found guilty, 4-1, of a charge of verbal harassment and ordered to stay away from Gambill.
The story was an Internet sensation this week, putting UNC-CH in the national news.
At Friday’s rally several speakers suggested it is time for the university to assert power over the honor court to dismiss the charge against Gambill. Though the university administration has said it has no control of the honor system, Karen Booth, a women’s studies professor, said “that is simply a misleading statement at best.”
‘Pretty close relationship’
She read portions of the honor code stating that the university’s student affairs administrators are to “coordinate, advise and supervise” honor court officials.
“To me, that sounds like a pretty close relationship,” she said.
Also on Friday, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Women in the Academic Profession wrote to Chancellor Holden Thorp to support Gambill and call for dismissal of the charges.
“Ultimately, when rape victims and those who raise allegations of sexual assault are silenced, the educational mission of the university is compromised, diminishing the academic freedom of students and faculty members alike,” the letter said.
Thorp issued a statement Friday that began, “Sexual assault is intolerable – at Carolina or anywhere else.”
Thorp said many changes are under way to improve the process for dealing with sexual assaults. A nationally known expert on campus sexual misconduct is working with UNC-CH to hold an open conversation on the issue, Thorp said.
His statement added: “The accusation that the University has retaliated against a student for filing a complaint is totally and completely false. Administrators have no authority over how charges are made in individual Honor Court cases.”
Gambill said she doesn’t want to attack the honor court or seek vengeance against her ex-boyfriend.
“Even though this has been difficult, I am certain that change is coming,” she said. “We, students, faculty, staff and off-campus allies are determined to make Carolina a place where survivors are believed, supported and protected. … It’s time to investigate. It’s time to ask the hard questions.”