I’m sure that most of America has heard about the recent allegations against household name and famous comedian and actor, Bill Cosby…and by allegations, I’m referring to the 50 women who have come forward and accused Cosby of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual misconduct, and even child sexual abuse. These sex crimes occurred between the years of 1965 and 2008, and have resulted in few charges being actually pressed against Cosby.
However, my favorite way to start off the new year is with a little bit of justice. As of December 30th, 2015, Cosby is facing his first criminal charge of aggravated indecent assault, with the bail set at $1 million. At first, this means very little. It’s an amount that Cosby can pay easily, and the money will be returned to him at the end of his court proceedings. But, it reflects that the court perceives Cosby as a flight risk. It’s telling the public that the charges aren’t just for show. They’re to make an impact. Cosby’s preliminary hearing for this charge will be taking place on January 14th, and if found guilty, he faces up to 10 years behind bars.
This same success will sadly evade some of the charges that are far past or on the cusp of exceeding their statute of limitations. However, these accusations are fresh, and are making headlines by forcing Cosby to remain accountable for his actions, regardless of the legal timer ringing. It’s giving society a chance to ask important questions—is someone as known and famous as Bill Cosby really capable of rape and sexual assault? And if so, what does this say about people’s capabilities to commit these acts? Do we really know rapists like we think we do?
When rape is committed—as it is against over 400 people, mostly women, every month—we rarely hear about it in the form of an accusation, let alone as a legal claim finding its day in court. Women are so often afraid of the rape culture that permeates American society. Many remain silent for most, if not all, of their lives. Legitimate claims that can and should be taken to court to put sex criminals behind bars never leave anyone’s mouths. And it has nothing to do with the victims of these crimes. It has everything to do with the sex criminals committing these atrocities—99% of whom are men—and the societal pattern to blame victims rather than perpetrators.We live in a country that prides these men’s reputations over the well-being of their victims, and everyone they hurt in the process of their own sexual conquest. It’s hard to convey the significance of when successful rape accusations become what they truly are—a chance for the women involved to be made whole, and an opportunity for the truth to come out. This is why cases like this one are a success in the face of sex crimes and their prosecution in America. They may not be able to lead to direct legal claims, but they pave the way for future survivors and victims to reclaim their trauma, and find their day in court. They can be made whole again…or at least as whole as the American legal system can permit.
And then again, there’re rarely happy endings to stories like this. The reality of sex crimes is that it’s a system trying to pin the actions of a violent perpetrator on the victims. This pattern is no different with Bill Cosby, who has yet to find many legal charges lodged against him amidst these accusations. Worse, he has been busy making claims of his own—against the women who came forward.
Bill Cosby is suing seven of these women for defamation of character, a legal tort that is prosecuted in civil court. Specifically, Cosby is suing for slander—claiming that these women and their verbal complaints about his conduct have monetarily cost him in such a way that, without these accusations, he would have prospered. His lawyers argue that each of these seven women have “tarnished Cosby’s honorable legacy and reputation” by “willfully, maliciously, and falsely accusing Mr. Cosby of multi-decade-old purported sexual misconduct”. Aside from delicately stepping over the issue of the actual rape that occurred, Cosby is suing women who lodged smaller accusations under the premise that they cost him a significant deal with Netflix and NBC for future employment and acting opportunities. Like every other American citizen, Cosby has the right to use the civil justice system to make himself whole by pursuing damages.
And, like every other American citizen, Cosby will face the same setbacks in pursuing these claims, just like his victims are in charging him. Charges for defamation of character are difficult to prove, because they require proving—through a preponderance of the evidence, a smaller burden of proof than a criminal case’s “beyond a reasonable doubt”—that the slander itself is false. Cosby is going to have to prove he never raped, assaulted or harassed any of these women. Further, he’ll have to prove that these accusations were the sole reason he lost these contracts with Netflix and NBC. However, the hardest part of these claims will be the “actual malice standard”, an exception in American tort law for plaintiffs just like Cosby. Stemming from the Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan from 1964, it states that if the plaintiff can be proven to be a public figure—as many will agree that Cosby is—they have an additional burden of proof. He must show that each and every one of these women came forward as victims and survivors of Bill Cosby’s abuse, for the sole purpose of maliciously ruining is career. There is no prior evidence or foundation to claim that these accusations came from places of malice, making Cosby’s uphill climb even steeper. Claims like these are incredibly difficult to prove, and even harder when the list of defendants is seven women long.
Cosby might have a chance at prosecuting his own rape victims, due to the overwhelming team of lawyers at his side, who could probably create a better legal analysis than I can. Even the politics around this case seem always to air in favor of the perpetrator. But no matter what Cosby does in the courtroom, it doesn’t change the tides of society in turning against him. We are becoming less complacent and accepting of the perpetuating culture and stigma against survivors of sex crimes. We are siding more with the victims, calling out the names of their attackers loud and clear for us. So, from me to you, Bill Cosby, I wish you luck in suing these women. And I wish each and every one of them all the luck in the world in civil and criminal courts in showing you what we have all realized—your legacy doesn’t save you. Your crimes will not go silent anymore. And when you walk out of that courtroom, no matter the verdict, we’ll all be judging.
Read here for more information on the Bill Cosby accusations.