Professors Dispute Depiction of Harvard Case in Rape Documentary, November 13, 2015
By Cara Buckley
The veracity of one of this year’s most talked about documentaries, “The Hunting Ground,” has been attacked by 19 Harvard Law School professors, who say the film’s portrayal of rape on college campus is distorted, specifically when it comes to their school’s handling of one particular case.
Directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, whose previous team efforts include the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War” (2012), about sexual assault in the military, “The Hunting Ground” interviews victims of sexual assault at colleges around the country. These women, and some men, recount not only the rapes, but also the institutions’ often weak responses. After its premiere to largely favorable reviews at Sundance in January, it had a spring theatrical release, and is scheduled to be broadcast next Thursday on CNN.
Defenders of the film say the criticism from those faculty members, among them prominent black and feminist legal scholars, is misdirected and focused too much on the legal findings.
“The documentary has created an important conversation about campus sexual assault,” said Diane L. Rosenfeld, a Harvard law lecturer who also appears in the film and did not sign the letter. “We need to be rolling up our sleeves and really figuring out what kind of preventative education programs to develop which create a culture of sexual respect.”
But in their letter, the law professors, who include Laurence H. Tribe, Randall L. Kennedy and Jeannie C. Suk, said the film “provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student,” specifically a male Harvard law student whose case is included in “The Hunting Ground.”
Unidentified in the film but named in the professors’ letter, the student, Brandon Winston, was accused by another law student, Kamilah Willingham, of sexually assaulting both her and a friend when they passed out after a night of drinking. Harvard Law expelled Mr. Winston, but a grand jury did not indict him on the most serious charges, choosing instead two counts of indecent assault and battery against the friend. He was convicted of a misdemeanor nonsexual assault. After reviewing his case, Harvard Law readmitted him.
But the film, its dissenters say, left the erroneous impression that the student was not only guilty but also probably a serial offender who drugged his victims.
“This is a young human being whose life has been mauled by this process for years, and now he has to walk around campus with people saying, ‘Oh, you’re a repeat sexual offender,’ and he’s not,” said Janet Halley, one of the letter’s authors. “It’s not a documentary. It’s propaganda.”
How colleges are dealing with sexual assaults has come to the fore of the national conversation. In September, a year after the Obama administration started an initiative called “It’s on Us” to tackle campus sexual violence, the Association of American Universities released its finding, from a survey of more than 150,000 students at 27 universities, that nearly a quarter of female undergraduates were the victims of sexual assault and misconduct. At Harvard, which had the highest response rate of all the schools surveyed, 31 percent of female seniors said they had been the target of nonconsensual sexual contact.
Harvard had been roiled by internal fractiousness over its handling of sexual assaults. In the fall of 2014, Ms. Halley, along with 27 current and former law professors, denounced the university’s adoption of a new sexual harassment and sexual violence policy. The procedures, they wrote in a letter published in The Boston Globe, “lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process” and “are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.” Sixteen of those signatories went on to sign the most recent letter.
Last December, the Department of Education found the law school in violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds, for its response to sexual assaults.
Meanwhile, criticism has been lobbed at “The Hunting Ground” for months. Shortly after its theatrical release, The Harvard Crimson faulted the filmmakers’ calculation of the college’s sexual assault statistics, and, in June, Emily Yoffe published a blistering takedown in Slate of the documentary’s presentation of Ms. Willingham’s case.
CNN has defended the film, saying, “We are confident that both the film and our extensive associated coverage give this important issue the full and fair treatment it deserves.”
The filmmakers have been just as staunch, posting a rebuttal to Ms. Yoffe’s article on their website. And they were equally quick to respond to the letter, which has become a sharply divisive issue on the Harvard campus.
“Everything in ‘The Hunting Ground’ is accurate and we fully stand behind our Harvard Law survivor’s account of her assault, as well as the accounts of all the subjects in our film,” Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering wrote in a text message to a New York Times reporter. “Studies confirm that failed policies on campuses overwhelmingly favor perpetrators, enabling them to commit crimes with impunity. Where are the letters of outrage from these professors decrying this grave injustice which has been going on for decades, and has a devastating impact on survivors, their families and our society?”
Harvard Law School professors criticize campus sexual assault documentary, November 13, 2015