Bill Cosby doesn’t have a talent agency anymore. He doesn’t have a show in development at NBC or a comedy special on Netflix. He doesn’t have a statue at Walt Disney World. His reruns aren’t airing on BET or Bounce TV or TV Land. Over 40 rape accusations spanning five decades have a way of catching up with you, it appears. Almost everywhere you go, Cosby is an unwanted man.
But there is one honor Bill Cosby still holds: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
One organization is hoping to change that. The non-profit PAVE (Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment) launched a petition last Wednesday asking the White House to revoke the medal.
Angela Rose, executive director of PAVE, said her organization decided to introduce the petition after the release of court documents from 2005 in which Cosby confirmed that he acquired quaaludes with the intent of “us[ing them] for young women that [he] wanted to have sex with.”
“That is a prime example of predatory behavior,” said Rose. Which is not to say that PAVE waited until then to believe the 40-plus women who have come forward to accuse Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them; Rose recalled that she was not believed by police when she reported 19 years ago, to the day, that she was kidnapped from a shopping mall and assaulted by a man who was on parole for murder. “They accused me of lying. They asked if I was in an abusive relationship.”
But “it is a watershed moment for those court documents to be released,” she said. “He admitted to using drugs… I think it’s a catalyst moment in our nation’s history to talk about consent, and that’s a very important conversation when we talk about the prevention of sexual violence. For too long, women have been told to watch what they’re wearing and how to reduce their risk. But the conversation needs to be about prevention: men and women working together to shatter the silence around sexual assault.”
Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand, both prominent champions for survivors of sexual violence, have publicly supported the petition. Through a spokesperson, Gillibrand told Politico, “She supports this group’s effort because we need to set a clear example that sexual assault will not be tolerated in this country, and someone who admitted to using drugs for sex no longer deserves the nation’s highest honor.” Sen. McCaskill said Cosby “has now admitted in sworn testimony that he drugged young women to take advantage of them sexually. I don’t think that somebody that has admitted to doing that deserves a medal of any type. He probably deserves to go to prison.” (ThinkProgress reached out to both McCaskill and Gillibrand; neither was available to comment for this story.)
Rose said PAVE did not contact McCaskill or Gillibrand before publishing the petition, “but we’ll be reaching out after their public support. For a long time, they have been fierce advocates for sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy. Both of them have been so influential in this movement. For them to step up and support this, it’s really incredible.”
Cosby was awarded the medal in 2002 from George W. Bush. No Presidential Medal of Freedom has ever been revoked. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told USA Today, “I don’t know whether or not it’s legally possible” to rescind the medal. The award is intended to recognize “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
The honor is just that: an honor, with only symbolic significance. It carries with it no actual responsibilities or financial reward. An executive order stripping Cosby of the title, then, “would just send a strong message to the youth of America that that type of behavior is not celebrated,” Rose said. “It’s not so much about the revoking of the medal but that symbols do matter. Look at the Confederate flag being taken down this week. Symbols matter, and this symbol [marks] him as a prestigious man in our nation’s history.”
At press time, the petition had 8,733 signatures — 91,267 shy of the 100,000 needed to guarantee a formal response from the White House. Still, Rose said, “I am optimistic, because President Obama as been a courageous leader, and his administration — especially the task force on campus sexual assault, which I was a part of — have been so incredible at looking at sexual assault prevention: in the military, on college campuses. So I am optimistic that he’ll revoke the medal.”
“A lot of people say with Cosby, with his merits, he’s done so many great things for this country; why revoke it when he has a longstanding history of empowering young people?” said Rose. “But we need to be careful about the message: just because you’ve done some good in your life, it shouldn’t make all of these deeds okay in the eyes of the nation… We need to hold a higher standard, especially for people who hold the Medal of Freedom.”
PAVE has outlined on its websites “three options for President Obama to examine in regard to the medal.” The first is an executive order: the President would formally rescind the medal. The second is a personal statement: as an individual, President Obama “could express his opinion that the award should be rescinded.” And the third is that the President issue a request to Cosby, asking the him to return the medal of his own volition.
“If he wanted to give it back, it would show, in good faith, [that he can] send a positive message about consent and relationships,” said Rose.
Given Cosby’s non-response to the allegations thus far, it seems unlikely that he would go that route, no?
“That’s true,” said Rose. “It would be pretty amazing, though.”