A 17-year-old sexual assault victim named Savannah Dietrich — who has given permission for her identity to be made public — has been held in contempt of court and faces a potential jail sentence and fine for tweeting the names of her assailants. Dietrich did not make a false allegation, or even an unfounded one; in fact, her assailants pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism last month. But they are juveniles — like Dietrich, who they victimized — and therefore their “confidentiality” is considered of the utmost importance, and a court order had been issued for her to not speak about the case.
Frustrated by what she felt was a lenient plea bargain for two teens who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her and circulating pictures of the incident, a Louisville 17-year-old lashed out on Twitter.
“There you go, lock me up,” Savannah Dietrich tweeted, as she named the boys who she said sexually assaulted her. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.”
Now, Dietrich is facing a potential jail sentence, as the attorneys for the boys have asked a Jefferson District Court judge to hold her in contempt because they say that in naming her attackers, she violated the confidentiality of a juvenile hearing and the court’s order not to speak of it.
A contempt charge carries a potential sentence of up to 180 days in jail and a $500 fine.
“So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys,” said Dietrich, who waived confidentiality in her case to speak to The Courier-Journal. Her parents also gave their written permission for her to speak with the newspaper.
“I’m at the point, that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it,” she said. “If they really feel it’s necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me … as opposed to throwing these boys in jail for what they did to me, then I don’t understand justice.”
Dietrich’s very interview could also be considered contempt of court on the same grounds that her tweet of the boys’ names likely will be:
The boys’ attorneys, however, have asked the court to continue the order barring Dietrich from speaking to the media about the assault case or allowing the newspaper or anyone else to witness the contempt hearing.
Emily Farrar-Crockett, deputy division chief of the public defender’s juvenile division and one of Dietrich’s attorneys, said her client was advised that her interview with the newspaper could “potentially” be a violation of the judge’s order.
“But she feels it’s important to speak out and chose to do so,” Farrar-Crockett said.
This is how defense attorneys and criminal courts work — to revictimize sexual assault survivors in order to protect rapists.
Dietrich’s assailants not only sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious at a party, they also took photos of the attack and spread them around to their and Dietrich’s peers. While enacting sexual violence against her, documenting it, and joyfully sharing it, they most certainly were not concerned with her “confidentiality.” But now theirs has been deemed of the utmost importance — at the expense of the right of their victim to publicly name what they did to her.
This is an issue that comes up commonly in college rape cases that go through the school’s internal system. Often, victims are forced to sign “confidentiality agreements,” which can cover a wide range of ground, including discussing the attack at all, naming the attacker(s), or disclosing the outcome of disciplinary hearings. These victims more often than not wish that they had never gone through the system, feeling more vulnerable and victimized before. Having not only been assaulted, but also seeing little justice, they are then treated as criminals themselves and denied the most basic right — and frequent necessity of recovery — of discussing what they have been through.
In this case, it’s the government doing the gagging. While penalties schools can levy are severe, they are not nearly as much so as the potential for incarceration or a permanent criminal record. While these young men have not yet been sentenced, and the media is still protecting their identities and privacy, it is fair to deduce from Dietrich’s statements regarding the recommended sentence that it does not involve any form of jail time. Considering the court order refusing discussion of the case, and the fact that they are being tried as minors, it is also safe to assume that this violent and misogynistic assault will also not be following them on their criminal records into adulthood. Meanwhile, Dietrich has to live with the emotional aftermath of this assault for the rest of her life.
When survivors of gendered violence, including sexual violence and relationship violence, know that they cannot rely on the criminal justice system to protect them, public naming is a common tactic relied on to protect future potential victims. This doesn’t necessarily keep survivors safe, though it can; community members may still rally around the abuser, and the abuser may wish to confront the survivor, opening the potential for further trauma and abuse. This is to say that like all tactics for dealing with violence, it is to be handled with care, and no survivor is ever obligated to use it — only survivors can decide which tactics will keep them safest and which risks they are and are not willing to take. But it is valid and necessary tool among many.
The criminal justice system refuses to recognize that. It refuses to support survivors and then condones any methods survivors use to support themselves as dangerous and illegal vigilantism. The most important thing is to obey the all-powerful state and its methods, even though those methods are never set up for survivors’ best interests:
Farrar-Crockett said Dietrich looked at the laws of confidentiality before she tweeted and “tried not to violate what she believed the law to be,” not tweeting about what happened in court or was in court records.
Leslie, of the press freedom committee, said Dietrich should “not be legally barred from talking about what happened to her. That’s a wide-ranging restraint on speech.”
“By going to court, you shouldn’t lose the legal right to talk about something.”
But other legal experts said Dietrich knew the court’s order was in place and had a responsibility not to violate it, regardless of whether it was overly broad.
David Marburger, an Ohio media law specialist, said even if the judge is limiting freedom of speech with an order, “it doesn’t necessarily free you from that order. You have to respect the order and get the judge to vacate the order or get a higher court to restrain the judge from enforcing the order.”
Jo Ann Phillips, who heads Kentuckians Voice for Crime Victims, said she doesn’t blame Dietrich for standing up for what she felt was an injustice, but said she should have gone about it another way.
“This (assault) could affect her for the rest of her life and the fact that she said, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’ you have to applaud her,” Phillips said. “But you also have to respect authority.
“ … She should have gone to a victims’ group or her local legislator and fought for the right to speak out.”
Here, even organizations that are supposed to advocate for victims’ rights fail to critique the state’s authority. Indeed, they also reassert their own authority over the survivors’ rights and autonomy — she should have come to us, the experts, to tell her more about what she wasn’t and wasn’t allowed to do. There is nothing liberatory about forcing victims to rely on more institutions clearly intertwined with the the state that is victimizing them, and if it’s not victim-blaming, I don’t know what is. Activists, usually women of color, have long been critiquing the role of non-profit organizations in reinforcing state authority and institutionalizing oppression rather than empowering communities and challenging power. This is one instance where that role is made particularly blatant, and proves yet again why the criminal justice system cannot usually be relied on to effectively handle violence against women, and why alternate tactics and systems are necessary to both respond to and end violence.
While the victim in this case is a white woman, it’s worth nothing that these critiques generally come from women of color because women of color are significantly more likely to be victimized by the state and face little recourse once they are. Women of color have been thrown into jail countless times for defending themselves against abuse, but rarely see wide media exposure. At least partially as a result of already knowing that the justice system is not designed to protect them in advance, Black women are far less likely to report their rapes to police (pdf) in the first place.1 The system works badly for virtually all victims of sexual violence, but that is not to say that it does so equally.
Relatedly, my outrage at the courts’ handling of Dietrich’s case and protection of her abusers is not to suggest a lack of concern about the rights of juveniles caught in the criminal justice system. But to appeal to a prison abolitionist framework in this case would be not only misguided but also an instance of appropriation. Minors caught in the juvenile justice system are often treated terribly; the system is racially unjust, with children of color much more likely not only to face charges but also to face time in detention than white children for the same exact offenses. Minors of color are also much more likely than their white peers who are facing the same allegations to be tried as adults, facing a lifetime of stigma and lost opportunities, frequently for crimes that involved no violence. But that system not only values property over bodies, but some lives much more greatly than others. What we are looking at here is not a rare case of concern for offenders where there usually is none, but business as usual. The young men convicted here have not been identified, but since 90% of rapes are intra-racial, it is entirely fair to assume that they are white. As they have been tried as juveniles, have good lawyers launching a vigorous defense, are the subject of great privacy concerns, and are seemingly not facing detention — all things which defendants of color are far less likely to get in these circumstances — there’s not a lot of guesswork involved. This is yet another instance of the system blatantly preferencing white men above both men of color and women as a whole. And a successful defense of these young men’s “rights” will not in any way carry over to or benefit youths of color, including those whose offenses were non-violent.
These boys committed a grievous sexual assault, and through proudly publicizing their violence, showed absolutely no sense of remorse for their actions or mercy for their victim. For that, they are being shielded as vulnerable persons in need of state protection. Though they were not so young as to not publicly brag about their actions, they are being guarded as too young to be held publicly accountable for them. They are being represented, by their lawyers and by the courts, as the victims of the over-zealous vengeance of a vindictive young woman who is wild and on the loose. A woman whose vindictiveness only exists because they sexually assaulted her. That is the protection of patriarchy and white supremacy at work.
Currently, many are debating whether the gag order issued by the judge qualifies as a Constitutional violation of free speech. I think that’s to radically miss the point. The authority of the court is such that even an order ultimately found to be unconstitutional is still legally required to be followed. The authority of the court is also such that these types of orders can be issued in the first place, even if, as is arguably the case here, there is clear precedent against it. Further, the decisions about which speech and other rights are and are not protected is still placed overwhelmingly in the hands of white men to decide within a framework explicitly designed to benefit white men. That system presents a problem of far more than just a few rogue judges. It is a system that is categorically unsafe for survivors, a system inherently based upon the dual whims of white supremacy and patriarchy, a system designed to grant justice to a very select few.
Whether Dietrich will end up in jail while her convicted sexual assailants do not remains to be seen. But what is ultimately clear is that she has not, and will not, find justice here. The sad fact is, she was never meant to.
- While certainly interested in statistics for other women of color, I could not find them. If you have any, please feel free to forward them. ↩