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Top court focuses on victim in harassment case

Apr 14,2018
The Supreme Court remanded a sexual harassment case to the Seoul High Court on Thursday, saying the court erred on the side of favoring a male professor charged with sexually harassing a female student in pronouncing him not guilty.

When a case is remanded, it is sent back to the lower court with instructions with which the lower court is to reconsider the case. In effect, the Supreme Court has ruled that the lower court should have reached the opposite conclusion - that the professor was guilty.

“The appellate court did not consider the specific circumstances of the alleged victim in the case,” said the Supreme Court. “It made a judgement largely based on the thoughts and perspectives of the alleged perpetrator.

“Sexual harassment cases must be approached from the perspective of the victim,” said the court, “to see if the person could have felt sexually humiliated or repulsed by what the perpetrator did.”

This is the first Supreme Court judgement “that put forward the point that the circumstances and perspectives of the alleged victims should be thoroughly considered in sexual harassment cases,” it said.

The case concerns a male professor who was fired by his university after a female student accused him of sexually harassing her in his office in April 2015. The student said she had gone to the office asking for a letter of recommendation and that the professor told her, “I will write you a letter if you kiss me.”

She also accused the professor of hugging her from behind in a class.

After the professor was fired, he complained to the Appeals Commission for Educators that his dismissal was unjust. When the commission dismissed his request, he filed a suit in a local court, stating he was unjustly fired.

In the first trial, he was ruled guilty of sexually harassing the student.

He filed an appeal and said, “The student came to my office requesting a recommendation letter for a part-time job working with children with impairments. I told her, ‘You will need to have a high sense of service to be working for children with impairments. You will have to give them a hug sometimes and even kiss them, too. My nieces and nephews kiss me when they express their gratitude to me, do you think you can do that, too?’”

The appellate court ruled that the professor was not guilty of sexually harassing the student, saying that the professor “maintained close relationships with his students usually and would joke with them often and counsel them on their romantic relationships. Based on this, our judgement is that the female student would likely not have felt sexually humiliated or repulsed by what the professor said.”

In the incident of hugging the student from behind, the court concluded that it was an innocent accident.

“Because the classroom was small in size, the professor had to stand behind the student to look at her computer monitor,” the appellate court said. “And in order for the professor to type on the keyboard, he had to stretch out his hand from behind or next to her.”

There were additional female students who testified against the professor during his trial, but the appellate court dismissed the testimonies as unconvincing because the students had not taken any action until this case.

In all, the appellate court ruled that the professor was not guilty of sexually harassing the student, stating that “from a perspective of an ordinary person and judging by the context of the situation, what the professor did is not an act of sexual harassment.”

But in remanding the case, the Supreme Court said the appellate court failed to see the case from the alleged victim’s perspective and that students in general would have a hard time accusing their professor of sexually harassing them because of their fear of reprisal, especially since professors are understood to hold strong influence in a student’s career development.

“We strongly welcome the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Korea Women Lawyers Association in a statement on Friday. “This has set a precedent that sexual harassment cases must be tried with a full understanding of the perspectives of the alleged victims.”

BY PARK SA-RA, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]