BOISE – When rape allegations surfaced against a Republican state lawmaker in deep-red Idaho, some rushed to support him – in part by publicly releasing the name of his accuser.
Another lawmaker, some far-right blogs and others also released the name in disparaging social media posts or in newsletters, some of them including her photograph and details about her personal life.
The controversial move has victim advocates warning that publicly identifying people without their consent who say they were sexually assaulted makes it less likely that other women will be willing to file a report if they are attacked.
“This is absolutely why victims don’t report,” said Annie Hightower, director of law and policy with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence. “I don’t see any point to do that besides trying to bully someone and scare them from moving forward.”
The Associated Press generally does not identify the names of people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
The allegations against Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of Lewiston were first made public on Friday, when a legislative ethics committee released a copy of the complaint that was redacted to remove the name and job title of the accuser.
In the complaint, a legislative staffer said she was assaulted after von Ehlinger took her out to dinner and then back to his apartment on the pretext that he’d forgotten something. The staffer said he initiated sexual contact and forced her to perform oral sex, and that it happened even though she said “no” and froze. The Boise Police Department is investigating.
Von Ehlinger has denied the allegations, and last week told The Lewiston Tribune that the encounter was consensual and he did nothing illegal or improper. He didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday from The Associated Press.
Shortly after the ethics committee released the complaint, David Leroy – an attorney who was representing von Ehlinger at the time – publicly released a seven-page letter written by another of von Ehlinger’s attorneys rebutting the allegations and contending that the lawmaker had passed a lie detector test. That letter included the accuser’s name, as well as some personally identifying details about her life.
Soon the person’s name was popping up in social media and blog posts. Far-right bloggers shared the name and photograph, calling her a liar and attempting to discredit her by sharing personal details about her.
Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings, from White Bird, sent a newsletter to constituents revealing the woman’s name and claiming the allegations were a “blatant liberal smear job.”
Neither Giddings nor Leroy responded to requests for comment from the AP.
Heather Drevna, vice president of communications for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, said identifying people who report sex assaults without their consent could compound any trauma they’ve experienced.
“Survivors have already had their agency taken away from them in one of the most horrific ways possible,” Drevna said. “That’s why responsible media long ago adopted the policy about not naming victims without their consent.”
RAINN operates a sexual abuse hotline for survivors, and the organization frequently sees an increase in calls when survivors speak out. The hotline saw its largest 24-hour call increase in history, Drevna said, in 2018 after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in a U.S. Senate hearing that now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teens. Kavanaugh strongly denied those accusations.
“If they see someone being supported, that can have an impact on their ability to report,” Drevna said of the callers. “Conversely, seeing a survivor treated so abysmally as having their information released without their consent, that can have a chilling effect on others.”
The legislative ethics committee is holding a public hearing on the allegations against von Ehlinger on April 28. Von Ehlinger and his accuser – or their representatives – will have the opportunity to testify and present evidence if they wish.
The committee will then recommend to the full House whether the complaint should be dismissed or if von Ehlinger should face reprimand, censure or expulsion, and the House will vote.
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