Harvard Yard at Harvard University.
19 professors at Harvard University have written a letter harshly criticizing the popular documentary The Hunting Ground for both its characterization of a Harvard Law School (HLS) student accused of sexual assault and the school’s subsequent investigation into the incident.
The film, slated for its television debut on November 19 on CNN, is described by producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick as “a startling exposé of sexual assaults on U.S. campuses, institutional cover-ups and the brutal social toll on victims and their families.” The group of Harvard professors allege the piece is “propaganda” and replete with inaccuracies. In particular, they object to an interview with former HLS student Kamilah Willingham, who says a fellow student, Brandon Winston, drugged and sexually assaulted her, despite Winston having been cleared of those charges.
The Harvard group says that the filmmakers allow Willingham to paint a one-sided picture of the incident not supported by the record, and that the film unfairly implies a Harvard cover-up. Winston has since been cleared of all rape charges, but was found guilty of misdemeanor nonsexual touching. HLS subsequently reinstated him.
“This purported documentary provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student,” the letter reads. Its signatories include several prominent HLS faculty, including former federal district court judge Nancy Gertner, Charles Ogletree, founder of HLS’ Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Jeannie Suk, who has strongly advocated for due process in addressing campus sexual assault, and renowned constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
The group of professors calls the film “biased” and “one-sided”:
We believe that Brandon Winston was subjected to a long, harmful ordeal for no good reason. Justice has been served in the end, but at enormous costs to this young man. We denounce this film as prolonging his ordeal with its unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts of his case. Mr. Winston was finally vindicated by the Law School and by the judicial proceedings, and allowed to continue his career at the Law School and beyond.
The group cites Emily Yoffe’s investigative Slate article from June, “How The Hunting Ground Blurs the Truth,” in which Yoffe detailed facts in the Harvard incident’s “voluminous record” to show what she says are inaccuracies in The Hunting Ground. Yoffe questioned whether the filmmakers’ advocacy had compromised their ability to characterize the facts of the Willingham/Winston incident fairly:
The filmmakers present what happened between Kamilah Willingham and Brandon Winston as a terrifying warning to female college students and their parents, and a call to arms to government officials and college administrators. They offer the case as prima facie evidence that draconian regulations, laws, and punishments are required to end what they say is a scourge of sexual violence. But there is another story, which the filmmakers do not tell. It’s a story in which Willingham’s accusations are taken seriously and Winston’s actions are thoroughly investigated, first by Harvard University and later by the Middlesex County district attorney’s office. It’s a story in which neither the school nor the legal system finds that a rape occurred, and in which Willingham’s credibility is called seriously into question. It’s a story of an ambiguous sexual encounter among young adults that almost destroyed the life of the accused, a young black man with no previous record of criminal behavior. It’s a story that demonstrates how deeply the filmmakers’ politics colored their presentation of the facts—and how deeply flawed their influential film is as a result.
Winston’s legal team has also released a statement condemning the movie and CNN for showing it.
You can read the full letter from the professors here and tune in to CNN next week to evaluate the film for yourself.
Schools: Harvard University