Huffpost Gets It Wrong on a Campus Rape Case

July 24, 2014

By KC Johnson at Minding the Campus

Earlier this week, Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade published an article strongly critical of FIRE’s efforts to shine light on Occidental College’s troubling approach to due process. The article implied—without saying so directly—that FIRE was responsible for alleged harassment towards anti-due process activists on the campus. The underlying skepticism about the free exchange of information might seem unusual, but actually is a hardly uncommon tactic among opponents of campus due process.

The basics: FIRE posted court documents from one of the many campus due process lawsuits, this one filed by a student who claimed he was falsely convicted by a disciplinary panel at Occidental College. Kingkade claims that, in the aftermath, several witnesses to the case received harassing e-mails, “presumably” as a result of the FIRE post. Kingkade’s article gives no indication that he attempted to contact the authors of the allegedly harassing e-mails.

Kingkade’s article was odd in two important respects. First, it implied that FIRE had somehow breached decorum or court guidelines by inappropriately publishing confidential material. In fact, FIRE had posted publicly available court documents. It’s not clear why Kingkade believed these documents were confidential, or why he didn’t check with the court before making writing his article. (A subsequent correction to the article alleged an “editing error” but only obfuscated the issue, still implying that FIRE had inappropriately posted confidential items rather than publicly available court documents.)

Second, though his article included several other alleged e-mails, Kingkade presented to FIRE evidence of only one harassing item, an e-mail allegedly sent to Professor Danielle Dirks. But Dirks’ involvement in the case is hardly a secret, and no one could simply presume that the alleged e-mailer learned of Dirks’ role from the court documents. Here, for example, is an interview with her on the topic (with photo, as well) in LA Weekly. And here she is (just a flattering photo) in a Los Angeles Times article. And here she’s thrice referenced (no photo, this time!) in a LA Progressive article on the lawsuit against the school filed by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. And here she is, being uncritically quoted by Marie Claire.

These links all appeared on the first page of a Google search. Could it be that Dirks’ anger (and Kingkade’s unease) came not from FIRE exposing her involvement in the Oxy case—which was, of course, very well-known—but instead the particulars of the document? Because, in contrast to the uncritical press to which Dirks had become accustomed, the court documents revealed a quite ugly set of beliefs. The accuser, it turns out, said that Dirks had counseled her to file charges because the accused student “fit the profile of other rapists on campus in that he had a high GPA in high school, was his class valedictorian, was on [a sports] team, and was ‘from a good family.’”

Kingkade’s article doesn’t mention Dirks’ deeply troubling profiling of an Oxy student. (Imagine the likelihood of his silence if Dirks’ comments had been about a female accuser.) I suppose that curious HuffPost readers should be glad that FIRE has the documents online.

If, in fact, Professor Dirks received a nasty e-mail, it’s deeply regrettable. It’s also, sadly, a fact of life in the internet era. During the lacrosse case, I received more than my fair share of such communications, both via e-mail and in the blog’s comment section. (I even compiled a few weeks’ worth of nasty comments at one point.) But it would have been absurd for me to have implied that because their sympathizers said nasty things to me, Duke’s Group of 88 should remain silent, or that any court documents referencing me should remain secret.

A final note: I regularly encountered the Dirks/Kingkade tactic in covering the lacrosse case. Once occurred after a post I did on Claire Potter (who blogs under the title of “tenured radical”), who had written—falsely—that “the dancers were, it is clear, physically if perhaps not sexually assaulted.” Potter responded by claiming that I had posted her e-mail address and caused “followers” to send her inflammatory e-mails. The only problem? I hadn’t posted her address. A few weeks later, Group of 88 leader William Chafe wrote that “bloggers who have targeted the ‘Group of 88’ [had been sending] us e-mails and making phone calls wishing our deaths and calling us ‘Jew b-’ and ‘n-b-’.” I contacted every blogger I knew who had written about the Group; all categorically denied Chafe’s allegation. When I presented Chafe with this evidence, he responded that perhaps bloggers hadn’t sent the e-mails or made the phone calls, evidence of which he declined to produce.

At some point, this sort of tactic loses its effectiveness.

Schools: Occidental College Cases: Occidental College: Student Found Guilty of Sexual Assault After Incapacitation Standard Is Misapplied