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Law School Professors Challenge Critical Documentary

A promotional image from the filmmakers.
A promotional image from the filmmakers.
By Andrew M. Duehren, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: November 13, 2015, at 5:15 p.m.

A group of Harvard Law School professors have started a publicity campaign to challenge the depiction of the school’s sexual assault grievance process in "The Hunting Ground," a documentary film about campus sexual assault that CNN is scheduled to air on Nov. 19.

Released in the spring, the film features Kamilah Willingham, a Law School alumna, telling the story of what she describes as her and a friend’s experience being sexually assaulted by another Law student during her time at the school. While he is not identified by name in the film, a press release names Brandon Winston as the alleged perpetrator.

A promotional image from the filmmakers.
A promotional image from the filmmakers. By Courtesy of Radius-TWC

In between shots of Harvard’s campus—including the Harvard Lampoon and Matthews Hall—Willingham recalls how the Law School initially found Winston guilty and dismissed him, but professors reinstated him after an appeal.

The film is critical of the Law School’s reversal of the decision. Willingham’s narrative comes at the beginning of the film, which focuses heavily on the testimony of victims of sexual assault and what they describe as the lackluster administrative responses at colleges and universities across the country.

The government found the Law School in violation of gender equity law Title IX last December, which the film cites as evidence of the school’s negligence in the Willingham case.

Nineteen Law School professors are now challenging the presentation of Willingham’s narrative in the film, calling it “an unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts in [Winston’s] case.” A press release from Winston’s legal team makes similar arguments. Both argue that three separate adjudicatory bodies—a panel of Law School faculty, a grand jury, and a jury in a criminal trial—exonerated Winston of the most serious claims against him.

“Neither the film nor the press package informs the viewer about the damning evidence that caused the jury to reject Ms. Willingham’s claim that Mr. Winston raped her friend, and that caused the grand jury to refuse to indict Mr. Winston on any charges relating to Ms. Willingham herself,” the press release from Winston’s lawyers says.

Willingham could not be reached for comment. In a statement, the filmmakers rejected the claims of inaccuracy in the movie.

“Everything in The Hunting Ground is accurate and supported by documentation,” director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering said in a statement.

The film does include a slide card at the end describing Winston’s criminal process outside of the Law School, noting that “a grand jury indicted the accused with felony sexual assault of Kamilah’s friend and a jury convicted him of misdemeanor non-sexual assault. He was never tried for assaulting Kamiliah.”

Many of the professors challenging the documentary’s portrayal of Harvard are vocal critics of the University’s own approach to handling sexual harassment and the government’s interpretation of Title IX. Last October, 28 professors—17 of whom signed the letter about “The Hunting Ground”—blasted Harvard’s central sexual assault policy in an open letter in the Boston Globe, calling it biased against the accused.

Janet E. Halley, one of the Law School professors challenging “The Hunting Ground” and a signatory of the 2014 Globe letter, said the group will launch a website and upload documents about Winston’s case to further challenge the documentary. Halley argued that the decision to name Winston constituted “an attack” and that she and the other professors felt compelled to come to his defense.

Concerns about the documentary’s portrayal of Harvard’s disciplinary process have previously been raised. In March, The Crimson published a story challenging statistics that the film cites to describe the incidence of sexual assault at Harvard and the administration’s response. In particular, the film conflated Harvard University and Harvard College and misrepresented the sanctions handed down in some cases. Since the film first came out, those statistics have been updated, reflecting the points raised by The Crimson.

The filmmakers confirmed that edits have been made to the film since its initial release. “Like many films that screen at Sundance, the film was not finished as of January. Several minor changes were made to the film as part of the normal editing process,” Dick and Ziering said in a statement.

Robb London, a spokesperson for the Law School, wrote in an email that the school does not publicly discuss student discipline.

“The Law School administration refrains from publicly discussing particular disciplinary cases. We are deeply committed to addressing the problem of sexual assault and to ensuring that our procedures for addressing such incidents are fair to all who are involved,” London wrote.

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