Last month, a group of 19 Harvard Law School professors issued a press release denouncing the film The Hunting Ground as “propaganda” and condemning its “unfair and misleading portrayal” of the case of Harvard Law student Brandon Winston. Winston was dismissed from the law school for an alleged sexual assault, but later reinstated after faculty reversed the decision.
According to the professors’ press release:
With respect to Mr. Winston, the film gives the impression that he, like others accused in the stories featured in the film, is guilty of sexual assault by force and the use of drugs on his alleged victims, and that he, like the others accused, is a repeat sexual predator.
These allegations, the professors state, create a “seriously false picture” of Winston’s case.
In a statement emailed to The Harvard Crimson and reported yesterday, Hunting Ground director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering suggest that the professors’ criticism of the film may constitute actionable sex discrimination in violation of Title IX:
“The Harvard Law professors’ letter is irresponsible and raises an important question about whether the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law,” Dick and Ziering wrote.
To say this assertion is ludicrous is an understatement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking seriously. After all, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently opened a Title IX investigation into the University of Mary Washington (UMW) in Virginia in part because students alleged that a letter from the university president defending UMW against allegations of discrimination constituted “retaliation” in violation of Title IX. Similarly, Northwestern University investigated Professor Laura Kipnis earlier this year for alleged Title IX violations after she wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about what she called the “sexual panic” on campus.
So while FIRE would hope that any Title IX complaint filed against the professors for their criticism of The Hunting Ground would be shut down immediately, we have little faith in the good sense of either university administrations or OCR in the current climate of moral panic over the issue of campus sexual assault. FIRE, therefore, will be keeping a very close eye on this story.
UPDATED: Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk, an outspoken advocate of campus due process and one of the 19 signatories to the press release, provided FIRE this response to the filmmakers’ statement:
It's insulting to sexual assault victims to suggest that raising challenges to a film's veracity, accuracy, and fairness is contributing to a sexually hostile climate. But it exemplifies the reckless way some people use the concept of a hostile environment these days, to the detriment of victims and serious treatment of sexual assault.
Earlier today, Suk expressed her displeasure with the situation on Twitter:
Know: if actually accused of violating Title IX because of our criticism of @thehuntinground we will not be allowed to speak about that.
— Jeannie Suk (@JeannieSuk) December 4, 2015