At Harvard Law, a Sex-Assault Case That Won’t Go Away
Debate flares anew over how a 2011 incident is portrayed in the documentary ‘The Hunting Ground’ By Sarah Brown
Lawyers for Brandon Winston, a Harvard Law School student at the center of a high-profile sexual-assault case, teamed up with a communications firm to create the Brandon Project, [ http://brandonproject.org/] a website that includes court documents, videos, testimonials, and even photographs of Mr. Winston as a baby.
Nearly five years ago Kamilah Willingham, then a student at Harvard Law School, told university officials that a fellow student, Brandon Winston, had sexually assaulted her and a friend. Since then the case has been adjudicated several times, through both criminal and campus proceedings, and both parties have indicated that they are trying to move on. Ms. Willingham, who graduated in 2011, now works at a women’s law center; Mr. Winston, who was convicted of a misdemeanor charge but not of sexual assault, re-enrolled at Harvard this fall for his final year of school. But the alleged assaults against the two women, which occurred after an evening of drinking in January 2011, continue to haunt Ms. Willingham, Mr. Winston, and the university. A continuing debate over the public’s perception of what happened that night has again flared up. And many law-school professors have joined in, raising a new round of questions about the university’s past and future handling of sexual-assault complaints.
The latest tensions cropped up primarily over the portrayal of the case in The Hunting Ground, a widely discussed documentary on campus assault that includes Ms. Willingham’s account of the incident. The film, released this year, has drawn renewed attention in the past month: It was broadcast to a national audience on CNN in late November, and it was then named to the short list for an Academy Award. Shortly before the film was shown on CNN, 19 law professors at Harvard released a public statement condemning its portrayal of Mr. Winston. (The film does not mention Mr.Winston by name, but his name appeared in the press kit promoting the broadcast.)
In the meantime, a new public-relations battle has broken out. Mr. Winston’s lawyers teamed up with a communications firm to create the Brandon Project, a website that pleads his case through court documents, a video, and even photographs of Mr. Winston as a baby. More recently, an almost identical-looking website, University of Shame, appeared, supporting Ms. Willingham and a woman in another high-profile campus-sexual-assault case: the former Florida State University student who accused Jameis Winston, a former star quarterback there, of rape. (Jameis Winston was cleared of violating the university’s student code and did not face criminal charges; he and Brandon Winstonare not related.) Though it links to The Hunting Ground’s website, the film’s director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Ziering, said they did not create the site. Further conversation stirred when Jeannie C. Suk, a Harvard law professor who was among the signatories of the public statement, published an essay this month in The New Yorker defending the professors’ criticism of the film.
The problem with The Hunting Ground, the professors said in their statement, is that the depiction of Brandon Winston’s case is an “unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts.”
In an interview Ms. Suk said that “it was clear from the public conversations that were happening around the film that Brandon Winston was being described as a rapist.”
She said she considered it “part of my responsibility as a teacher and as a scholar to create spaces” for a nuanced discussion about the case. “If that means there’s a risk that some people will close their ears and say, She must be a rape-denier, I will take on that challenge.”
But not all faculty members and students at the law school agree with the signers of the statement. And Ms. Willingham said that the professors’ stance “really hurts,” particularly because she had taken classes with several of them. “I don’t deserve to be treated with such contempt, or to be so forcefully disregarded,” she said in an email. “It feels retaliatory.”
Ms. Willingham and her friend, who has not been publicly identified, filed complaints against Mr. Winston in April 2011, saying he had sexually assaulted both of them after
the three had spent several hours at a bar and returned to Ms. Willingham’s apartment. That September the law school’s administrative board found that he had initiated sexual
contact with the women while they were incapable of consenting and recommended dismissal. He was suspended from the school.
During a required appeal process the following May, a panel of law-school faculty members overturned the findings and the suspension. (Ms. Willingham has said that she was not informed about the review or given the opportunity to participate.) In October 2012 a Massachusetts grand jury indicted Mr. Winston on two counts of indecent assault and battery involving Ms. Willingham’s friend. The law school placed him on leave while he awaited trial.
Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights concluded a long-running investigation of Harvard Law under Title IX, the gender-equity law. Department officials issued a requirement that the school change its procedures for handling sexual-assault reports, which the university, as a whole, had already done. A December 2014 statement from the department cited the improper handling of a case involving two student complaints that mirrors the incident involving Ms. Willingham, her friend, and Mr. Winston. Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center and Ms. Willingham’s former lawyer, confirmed that she had filed a Title IX complaint on behalf of Ms. Willingham related to the school’s proceedings. A spokesman for the Department of Education would not confirm that the case it cited was Ms. Willingham’s, citing federal privacy laws.
The Hunting Ground debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, before Mr. Winston’s trial had concluded. In the film Ms. Willingham said, in reference to Mr. Winston: “This is a rapist. This is a guy who is a sexual predator, who assaulted two girls in one night.” He was convicted in March on one count of nonsexual assault and battery, a misdemeanor, and was allowed to re-enroll at Harvard this fall. When the film aired on CNN, in November, Ms. Willingham’s quote about him had been removed from the film. Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering, the filmmakers, confirmed the change. In emailed comments, they said that “it is quite common for films that premiere at Sundance not to be completely finished.” Mr. Winston was not publicly named as the student Ms. Willingham had accused until June, when Emily Yoffe, a journalist who has been skeptical of campus sexual-assault concerns, examined the case in Slate. Janet E. Halley, one of the Harvard professors who signed the statement condemning the film, said she was motivated to speak out last month because Mr. Winston’s name was included in the press kit promoting the film’s airing on CNN. Doing so, Ms. Halley said, “identified him by name on the grounds of what we believe are falsehoods.” For instance, she said, the film states that Mr. Winston was expelled. He was only suspended, she said. “Having the film shown on CNN, which purports to be a news show,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, another one of the signatories, “took it to a whole new level in terms of the damage it could do — both in terms of the reputation of our student and in terms of the truth of sexual assault as an issue more generally.” A CNN spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said that they welcomed “discussion about the issue and the film, including criticism.” They emphasized that they stood behind Ms. Willingham’s
account of the assault. “When documentaries bring to light uncomfortable truths about powerful people and institutions,” they said, “it’s not unusual for them to wage aggressive campaigns to silence their critics. That’s what we’re seeing now.” The filmmakers said they gave Mr. Winston a chance to be interviewed for the film. He declined, they said, referring them to his lawyer, Norman S. Zalkind. Mr. Zalkind said in an interview that the filmmakers “never called me.” Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said that they “did not see the point of contacting the attorney since the subject had already declined.”
Title IX Concerns
The professors’ criticism of the film has sparked a backlash at Harvard Law. Diane L. Rosenfeld, a lecturer at the school who did not sign the statement, said in an email that “the letter certainly does not speak for the entire HLS community.” Ms. Rosenfeld appears briefly in the film, which she said “powerfully shows” a tendency among some “to deny the extent to which sexual assault is being perpetrated on college campuses.” The Harassment/Assault Legal Team, a campus organization that supports students who report sexual assaults as they go through the campus disciplinary process, released a statement condemning the professors’ comments. Anna Joseph, a third-year law student and the group’s co-founder, said in an interview that the organization was “responding to the sense among the student body that the faculty in general was against survivors.” In her New Yorker essay Ms. Suk said she had been told by “a high-level administrator” that several people had inquired about the possibility of filing a Title IX complaint against the professors. Ms. Suk cited a precedent for such claims: Laura Kipnis, a filmstudies professor at Northwestern University, became the subject of two complaints after she wrote an essay in The Chronicle Review that criticized aspects of the culture surrounding campus sexual assault. Ms. Kipnis has since been cleared of wrongdoing. Mia Karvonides, Harvard’s Title IX officer, would not confirm whether inquiries had been made or comment on the case. In an interview Ms. Suk said any Title IX claim would be illegitimate. “I don’t think we have, by any stretch of the imagination, created a hostile environment such that we should be disciplined for sexual harassment,” she said. Ms. Willingham said the content of the professors’ statement proves otherwise. “How could any Harvard law student feel safe reporting a sexual assault there,” she said, “when 19 distinguished faculty members have shown that they are far more willing to believe that those accused of sexual assault are the real victims?” Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said that “this sends a message to all Harvard students that if you report an assault, your own professors may publicly come after you.”
But the professors’ primary purpose was not to defend an accused student, Ms. Suk said; it was to criticize the film. “I don’t think that there would be the same support among 19 professors just for an accused student,” she said. “What happened was the film aired nationally saying things that were untrue.” Ms. Halley said she hoped the statement would help acquaint the public with the facts of the case and ensure that Mr. Winston could move on with his life after years ofuncertainty. “It’s about trying to make sure he can get a job after he graduates — that he has something left of a reputation,” Ms. Halley said. She noted that all 19 of the professors who spoke out have tenure. “When you’re morally convinced that something wrong is happening and you have job security —which is so rare — you should stand up for what you think,” she said.
‘The End of the Story’
Ms. Suk said she didn’t think the law school needed to take any additional action in response to the controversy, even though Mr. Winston is still a student there. “He’s been allowed to re-enroll, and that’s the end of the story, as far as Harvard is concerned,” she said. “I don’t see what they would need to say further.” Robb London, a spokesman for the law school, said in an email that the school had “worked very hard to adopt and implement new procedures for addressing allegations of sexual assault” in the year since the Title IX investigation ended. But the fierce debate about the case shows no sign of concluding. Ms. Bruno, the former lawyer for Ms. Willingham, said she thinks the Harvard professors “are so dug into their position that they will continue to slander Kamilah.” Still, the recent scrutiny has inspired Ms. Willingham to continue telling her story and speaking out, Ms. Bruno said: “I have never seen Kamilah so resolved to make sure that people know the truth.”
As for Mr. Winston, Mr. Zalkind said that “even if there’s no money involved,” he would continue fighting for his client and educating the public about the case. “I do think that credible people in America will say that they shouldn’t have put this case in the film,” he said. “What else can you hope for?” Ms. Bartholet said she didn’t feel that the professors should be viewed as stoking the fire. “I think, had it not been for the film, that this would have died out as it should have,” she said. “It’s certainly not we, the 19, who are interested in taking this case and blowing it up and having a national conversation.” But the continuing tensions at Harvard Law, Ms. Willingham said, make it more difficult for the campus community and others to have productive discussions about sexual assault. “The only way I can get out of bed every day is by telling myself that there must be an end to this at some point,” she said. “It’s still surreal that my case is in the public eye at all.”
chronicle.com Article by Sarah Brown
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