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Service Women's Action Network v. U.S. Department of Defense

Last Update: February 3, 2015

What's at Stake

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), have sued the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The DoD failed to release records showing how the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), and the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point have maintained policies and practices that have resulted in student populations in which women are significantly under-represented and campus environments where misogyny and harassment prevail. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, the ACLU Foundation Women’s Rights Project, and the ACLU of Connecticut represent the plaintiffs.

Summary

The lawsuit aims to capture information about the military service academies’ admissions and recruiting policies, with the ultimate goal of ending gender disparities and discrimination that women who aspire to be military officers face due to the policies.

On November 14, 2014, the plaintiffs submitted FOIA requests to USMA, USNA, and USAFA for records relating to admissions policies, rates of admission, and information regarding admissions targets or quotas for women. The FOIA requests also asked for information regarding facilities for women and policies and responses to sexual harassment and assault at the Military Service Academies.

The lawsuit contends that DoD failed to release the records and failed to make a reasonable effort to search for the records.

DoD has a long history of denying women opportunities to serve equally and in leadership roles. Cadets and midshipmen attend the military service academies tuition-free, graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree with a commission as a Second Lieutenant, and must serve a minimum of five years on active duty. Yet, the percentage of women at West Point has remained between 14 percent and 17 percent for over 25 years, women are less than a quarter of the Brigade of Midshipmen at USNA, and USAFA has limited its enrollment of women cadets to at or below 23 percent since 1976, despite commissioning its graduates into a service in which over 99 percent of career fields have been open to women for two decades.

Women’s underrepresentation in the academies contributes to a dearth of women officers in the Armed Forces. Overall, women comprise less than 17 percent of all officers in the military services, despite DoD’s rescission of policies restricting military jobs for women.

The artificial limits on women’s participation in the academies fuels a culture of bias in which female students continue to be targeted for mistreatment, discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. Despite nearly ten years of research, training, and focus on the crisis of sexual assault at Military Service Academies, sexual assault reports at the academies have not shown a substantial change in the past five years. The academies received 70 reports of sexual assaults in the 2012-2013 academic program year. According to the DOD’s data, over 90 percent of the victims were women.

The plaintiffs believe the data that would be obtained from the FOIA request will shed light on the admission process, as well as the assignments women receive after graduation, and identify the problems and discrepancies preventing women from being admitted to the military service academies and thus serving in leadership positions in the military.

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