The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Bill Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom won’t be taken away

Comedian Bill Cosby performs Jan. 17 at the Temple Buell Theatre in Denver. (Barry Gutierrez/Reuters)

In 2002, Bill Cosby received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, some members of Congress understandably would prefer that the accused serial rapist didn't count such a high honor among his laurels.

In recent months, Cosby has come under fire amid allegations that he raped multiple women, and court documents from 2005 that were recently released show he admitted to buying pills to use on women he wanted to have sex with. Accordingly, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) don't think he deserves the highest civilian honor in America anymore.

When asked about revoking Bill Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom amid rape allegations, Obama said there is no precedent for that. (Video: AP)

In a statement to Politico, a spokeswoman for Gillibrand said Cosby's medal must be revoked "because we need to set a clear example that sexual assault will not be tolerated in this country."

But revoking the award isn't a simple matter of presidential decree or congressional vote. In fact, we don't actually know how the medal would be revoked because it's never happened before. Even White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he didn't know if it was possible.

The fact of the matter is there are no real rules for who gets our nation's highest civilian honor — much less how it might be rescinded. The year Cosby was awarded the medal, Aram Bakshian Jr., who worked in the Reagan administration, told the University of Virginia Miller Center that there's no formal criteria, except that recipients are "Americans who have contributed richly to the national life some way." But that can mean anything, from famous comedian and Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby to Patricia Wald, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. They don't even technically have to be American; South African President Nelson Mandela was given the medal in 2002.

Bakshian said the process for picking recipients involved a list of 10 to 12 recommendations that was eventually whittled down to five or six, and a proposed final list was sent to the president for approval. Often, people would campaign for the honor, he said, like donors who had given money to campaigns and humanitarian efforts but weren't particularity distinguished, and he would sometimes receive letters recommending someone for the honor that were "obviously ... ginned up."

Bakshian said it's "unlikely" Cosby's medal would be revoked, even though it's not out of the realm of possibility. He told The Hill that although people don't necessarily want to defend Cosby, the Obama administration has "other battles they want to fight first."

Another reason the White House might not do anything about Cosby's medal is that it has some cover. It would hardly be alone in letting his past honors stand.

Last week, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president Leron Gubler said in a statement that Cosby's star wouldn't be removed from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Once stars are added, he said, they're "considered a part of the historic fabric" of the the Walk of Fame, and doing so would be unprecedented.

Update: When asked Wednesday if he would consider revoked Cosby's medal, Obama said there was "no precedent" for doing so. "We don't have that mechanism."