In the latest development of a heated publicity battle, filmmakers of a popular documentary that criticizes Harvard Law School’s handling of a sexual assault case penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post sharply rebuking Law professors who have challenged the film.
Released last spring semester, “The Hunting Ground” film follows the narrative of Law School alumna Kamilah Willingham, who alleges she and a friend were sexually assaulted during Willingham’s time at the school. The film criticizes the Law School’s response to Willingham’s case, focusing on the school’s decision to overturn the initial dismissal for Willingham’s alleged perpetrator. While the film—which is shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature—does not identify the accused, press releases from the Law professors and the filmmakers name Law student Brandon Winston.
A group of 19 Law School professors signed a press release criticizing the film’s depiction of the case soon before it aired on CNN in November, calling it a “an unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts.” Soon after, Winston’s lawyers launched a website called The Brandon Project, which features a series of public court documents, in an effort to clear Winston’s name. The filmmakers, in turn, denounced the website.
Now, the filmmakers are again responding in full force. Their article, titled “How Harvard Law Professors Retaliated Against An Assault Survivor,” casts the Law professors’ public criticisms and the Brandon Project website as misleading efforts to retaliate against Willingham and discredit victims of sexual assault.
“These aggressive actions send a very chilling message to all current and future students at Harvard and Harvard Law: if you report a sexual assault, your professors may come after you publicly,” filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick wrote.
The filmmakers also alleged that the professors timed their criticism to coincide with the launch of the school’s $305 million capital campaign.
“The disturbing irony is that Harvard Law is doing exactly what The Hunting Ground shows universities have done for the past 50 years: discrediting survivors to protect their own reputations and funding, all at the expense of their students’ safety and well-being,” Ziering and Dick wrote.
When they first publicly criticized the film, the Law professors said the national audience the film would receive when it aired on CNN prompted them to act publicly.
In a statement, Law School spokesperson Robb London denied the filmmakers’ allegations that professors’ critiques of the film were intended to minimize problems of sexual assault at the school ahead of fundraising efforts. He wrote in the statement that Law School Dean Martha L. Minow regularly communicates with alumni about the realities of sexual assault at the school and the broader University, and “alumni know it, donors know it, and we talk about it with them.”
“The claim that the Law School is trying to protect its reputation during a fundraising campaign by somehow hiding the sexual assault issue from donors is not supported by facts that could have been easily checked, had Mr. Dick or Ms. Ziering checked with us,” London wrote.
Law professors who have publicly challenged the film similarly took issue with the premise and title of the filmmakers’ op-ed. Janet E. Halley, one of the 19 professors who criticized the documentary in November, denied that she and the other professors were retaliating against or targeting Willingham and said the professors’ statements were critical of the film itself, not any individual student.
“The reason I participated in the Law professors’ press release is not that a student came forward and complained about sexual assault, nor that she complained in the criminal process,” Halley said. “It is that ‘The Hunting Ground’ has profoundly misled the public about the ensuing processes which came out decisively against those claims.”
Jeannie C. Suk, another professor who signed the public release, said her criticism of the film stemmed from concerns about fair sexual assault grievance processes, not retaliating against individual complainants.
“There is this idea that we have to stand by and support or be silent about a film that does a very poor job of moving forward fair and effective policy or else be considered deniers of the problem,” Suk said. “That’s just a proposition that I don’t accept.”
In a statement, the filmmakers reiterated their previous charges against the Law School, which the federal government found in violation of anti-sex discrimination law Title IX in late 2014, and wrote that high profile professors have sought to quash scrutiny directed at the school.
“When documentaries bring to light uncomfortable truths about powerful people and institutions, it's not unusual for them to wage aggressive campaigns to silence their critics,” the filmmakers wrote. “That's what we're seeing now.”
The Oscar nominations will be announced January 14.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
Law School Found in Violation of Title IX after Years-Long ProbeIn its investigation into the Law School’s Title IX compliance, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found that the Law School “failed to comply with Title IX's requirements for prompt and equitable response” to complaints of alleged sexual harassment and sexual assault.
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