COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The sexual abuse survivors of former Ohio State University physician Richard Strauss are trying to send a message — but they say no one will share it.
As a lengthy legal battle across federal courts continues into its fifth year, some survivors created a Survivors of OSU website to vent their frustrations, aggregate stories about Strauss’ abuse and the university’s response to it — and call on Ohio State to drop its fight against litigation. To spread their message, survivors fundraised to pay for a billboard in Columbus.
You won’t be able to find that billboard, however, because it doesn’t exist. No company would accept their proposals, survivors said, even after they submitted nearly a dozen revisions.
“We’re trying to spread information. And we’re trying to make them do the right thing, meaningful changes and promising us that they’re going to stop these silly actions that they’ve been doing from 2018 on” said Stephen Snyder-Hill, a survivor and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Ohio State.
The first versions of the billboard are admittedly shocking, Snyder-Hill said — the survivors designed them to cause a “visceral reaction.” The original billboard, seen below, calls Ohio State the “Sex Abuse National Champs” next to an edited version of Strauss’ employee headshot.
Another version of the billboard includes Strauss’ face next to headshots of current Ohio State trustees — asking passersby to vote for “who is worse” on the Survivors of OSU website.
“Sexual assault ruins lives, but defending it is worse” reads another billboard version.
The last version of the billboard has only the website link with an old photo of Strauss behind it. It was still too risky for billboard companies, survivors said.
An agent who sells billboard space told NBC4 that he couldn’t find a local outdoor sign company to accept any version of the billboard — company owners were afraid of Ohio State’s legal power. No billboard company has returned NBC4’s requests for comment.
Ohio State spokesperson Ben Johnson denied any university involvement in the billboard rejections.
“Other groups have purchased billboards criticizing Ohio State,” Johnson said in a statement. “The university has not and would not get involved in such a matter.”
Ohio State may not have directly meddled in survivors’ plans, Snyder-Hill said, but it still has a heavy influence over businesses — and people — in the area.
“I mean, it makes me understand what we’re up against, the entity that we’re up against, the Ohio State University has their grips on people, and people are terrified of them.”
Strauss’ abuse and Ohio State’s knowledge of it
Strauss was an Ohio State physician and varsity team sports doctor from 1978-98. During his tenure, he sexually abused and harassed hundreds of students – nearly all men – under the guise of medical exams.
Strauss died by suicide in 2005.
Since 2018, more than 400 victims and their families have filed lawsuits against Ohio State for its failure to prevent and address the abuse, which an independent investigation found in 2019 that university officials were aware of as early as 1979. And since 2018, the university has tried to get the lawsuits dismissed, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations on civil sexual abuse cases expired two years after each victim left the university.
Last September, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuits, saying there was extensive evidence to suggest Ohio State deliberately covered up Strauss’ abuse and ultimately prevented victims from recognizing that abuse. Although Ohio State requested a full-panel, en banc review of the case, the federal appeals court rejected the motion in December.
Ohio State has since notified the court it intends to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, the last legal maneuver the university has to prevent lawsuits from going to trial. Its lawyers have until March 14 to file a petition of writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, on which at least four justices must vote to accept.
In the years since Strauss’ abuse became public, survivors have tried spreading their message in several ways. They’ve spoken at the full Board of Trustees meetings each November, pleading with the board to “do the right thing.” They’ve sent emails to board members and state legislators.
More recently, they’ve protested outside of Ohio State football games, waiving large, red posters reading “OSU protects sexual predators” in a sea of tailgating Buckeyes fans — many of whom have never heard of Strauss. The lack of public awareness is why some survivors have started the website — and hope to run billboard ads for it.
“We don’t get the support from the community because the community doesn’t know what’s going on,” said a survivor, who is a “John Doe” in a lawsuit against Ohio State. “We’re hoping that this gives a little exposure to a situation, and people start calling the Board of Trustees and saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? You need to support these guys.'”