How Harvard Law Professors Retaliated Against An Assault Survivor

The following op-ed by The Hunting Ground Filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, was published by the The Huffington Post on January 5th:

We were warned.

At a public discussion following the premiere of our film The Hunting Ground, which is about sexual assault on college campuses, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) predicted: “The power on that status-quo side, you’re going to see it in response to this film… Believe me, there will be fallout.”

She was right.

Two powerful universities whose wrongdoings were exposed in the film have gone to great lengths to attack the accounts of survivors: Harvard Law, which protected an assailant who was repeatedly found to have committed assault, and Florida State University, which covered up a rape investigation of its star quarterback. Both have mounted aggressive disinformation campaigns to protect their reputations, only to be proven wrong as more facts about these schools have come to light.

Controversial subject matter is nothing new for us. We previously made the award-winning documentary The Invisible War, which lifted the curtain on the crisis of sexual assault in our military and spurred five Congressional hearings and the passage of dozens of reforms. The Pentagon, rather than attacking the film, began extensively using it as a training tool to address the problem. Many colleges and universities are doing the same with The Hunting Ground, and to date there have been nearly 1,000 screenings on college campuses.

Unfortunately, FSU and Harvard Law are outliers, attacking the messenger rather than the problem. Before the film’s broadcast debut on CNN, FSU President John Thrasher released a statement condemning both the film and CNN, claiming, “FSU does not tolerate rape. Period.” The following week, a New York Times story contradicted that claim when it reported that FSU’s former victim advocate director testified that 40 football players had been accused of either sexual assault or intimate partner violence and only one found responsible.

More recently, a group of Harvard Law professors launched a public campaign to discredit an assault survivor. In doing so, they ignored the facts of the case: Kamilah Willingham was a third-year Harvard Law student when she reported to the school that a fellow student had sexually assaulted her and a friend while they were unconscious and incapable of consent. Her assailant admitted to committing assault in both text messages and a tape-recorded interview.

Harvard Law’s Independent Fact Finder undertook an extensive three-month investigation and found Willingham to be credible and her assailant not credible, in part because he had changed his story multiple times. Harvard Law’s Administrative Board and Appeal Hearing Officer agreed, and found the accused student responsible for sexually assaulting both women while they were incapacitated, and recommended his dismissal. Then, a group of Harvard Law faculty overturned that finding and allowed the accused student to return to campus, using a secretive process that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights later determined was biased toward the accused and violated the civil rights protections of students under Title IX. The truth is that if that process had followed OCR guidelines, the Harvard Law faculty would not have legally been able to overturn the finding.

Rather than acknowledging their involvement in this unfair process, these Harvard Law faculty have instead tried to publicly discredit Willingham, even going so far as to team up with the assailant’s defense attorney to build a biased website against Willingham. It is wrong for professors who have adjudicated a case to side with one of their former students against another in this way. 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. What student would report a sexual assault if they know this might happen? Very few—and when fewer assaults are reported, rapists are free to continue to assault, and the school becomes a more dangerous place.

Students and other faculty at Harvard Law, and attorneys who specialize in campus sexual assault, have strongly and repeatedly criticized these professors. Despite this, the Harvard Law faculty continue to retaliate against Willingham. Even more troubling, in all their attacks, these Harvard Law professors have neither acknowledged that their school has a sexual assault problem, nor expressed any genuine concern for the hundreds of survivors who’ve been sexually assaulted at Harvard Law over the past decades.

Oddly, Harvard Law’s attacks on Willingham did not begin until November 11, nearly 10 months after the film premiered. But they did come just eight days after Harvard launched a $305 million fundraising 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.

Despite the aggressive tactics of these few schools marked an important year in the fight against campus sexual assault. Dozens of schools conducted surveys of their students, revealing how pervasive the problem is, and legislatures around the country began developing reforms. After Governor Cuomo screened The Hunting Ground twice for members of the New York State legislature, they passed the bipartisan “Enough is Enough” legislation reforming how all colleges in New York address sexual assault. Meanwhile in Congress, Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and McCaskill (D-MO) have reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The bill has gained 34 cosponsors, including Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL).

As filmmakers, it is always our goal to focus on topics that will generate awareness—and this film has achieved far more than we ever hoped. As we start the New Year, it’s on all of us to continue these critical gains in the fight against campus sexual assault—and to refuse to bend to powerful institutions that protect the status quo by shaming and silencing the courageous young women and men who are trying to change it.