The documentary The Hunting Ground provides “a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities” and of a case involving Harvard University students, 19 Harvard law professors said in a statement Wednesday.
The film, released theatrically earlier this year, received critical acclaim and will air on CNN next week. It examines the issue of campus sexual assault, in particular at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the documentary’s two primary subjects were students. Their story, in which they become activists who travel around the country to inspire other victims to speak out and use the gender discrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to hold colleges accountable, provides the film’s narrative arc.
Along the way, the documentary takes frequent detours to call out a number of other institutions, including Harvard, for mishandling or ignoring the issue. That section of the film focuses on an assault allegedly committed by a law student there named Brandon Winston.
On Wednesday, a week before the documentary is set to air on CNN, the Harvard professors released a lengthy statement criticizing the film's portrayal of the accused student's case.
“There was never any evidence that Mr. Winston used force, nor were there even any charges that he used force,” the faculty wrote. “No evidence whatsoever was introduced at trial that he was the one responsible for the inebriated state of the women who are portrayed in the film as his victims. Nor was any body vested with final decision-making authority persuaded that Mr. Winston was guilty of any sexual assault offense at all. Mr. Winston was finally vindicated by the law school and by the judicial proceedings, and allowed to continue his career at the law school and beyond. Propaganda should not be allowed to erase this just outcome.”
Diane Rosenfeld, a Harvard law lecturer who did not sign Wednesday's statement, said she disagrees with her colleagues and agrees with documentary's findings. Rosenfeld was involved in Winston's disciplinary proceedings.
“I fully support the Hunting Ground film, which is all about ending the silencing of survivors,” she said. “I am bound by the principles of confidentiality under which the hearing was conducted, so I cannot say anything about the substance of the case. I can however say that the signatories of the press release represent only a minority of the [Harvard Law School] faculty.”
This is not the first time the filmmakers have had to defend The Hunting Ground against critics. Earlier this year, they posted a detailed fact page on the film's website after Slate published an article questioning some of the documentary's claims. The Harvard professors referenced that article in their statement Wednesday.
In an email, the filmmakers, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, noted that, in 2011, the Harvard Law Administrative Board found Winston responsible of engaging in sexual misconduct with the alleged victim while she was unconscious. But Harvard law professors overturned that ruling during the student's appeal. In December, the U.S. Department of Education determined that the appeal process in the case violated Title IX.
“The real injustice at the heart of this issue is that these Harvard Law professors have been completely absent regarding the hundreds, or even thousands, of assaults that have been happening on their campus for decades that have not been investigated or appropriately adjudicated,” the filmmakers wrote. “Where are the letters penned by these esteemed educators on behalf of the students who would truly benefit from their voices of support?”