Florida State President Criticizes 'Hunting Ground'

November 18, 2015

The documentary The Hunting Ground "contains major distortions and glaring omissions," John Thrasher, Florida State University's president, said in a statement Monday, comparing the film to Rolling Stone's botched attempt at reporting on sexual assault at the University of Virginia.

"It’s been barely seven months since Rolling Stone retracted its ill-fated University of Virginia fraternity rape story after revelations that it took a victim’s story at face value without getting the other side or checking the details with other sources, including the accused," Thrasher said in the statement. "Columbia University Journalism School, which examined the magazine’s reporting and editing of the piece, concluded that Rolling Stone had 'set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting.' We believe the same is true with The Hunting Ground."

The film, released theatrically earlier this year, received critical acclaim and will air on CNN on Sunday. 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. In the film, the two students travel around the country inspiring other victims to use the gender discrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to hold colleges accountable for mishandling cases of sexual assault. Along the way, the documentary takes frequent detours to call out a number of other institutions, including Florida State University, for mishandling or ignoring the issue.

The section of documentary about Florida State focuses on an assault allegedly committed by Jameis Winston, a former star player for the university's football team. While Winston was not charged with a crime, the university and local police have received much criticism for their handling of the allegations. The university did not begin a disciplinary process for Winston until nearly two years after the alleged assault. Articles by The New York Times and Fox Sports, citing documents obtained under open-records requests, accused Florida State of taking steps to "hide, and then hinder" the criminal investigation into the allegations against Winston.

The Hunting Ground features the first interview with the student who accused Winston of rape. That student -- who had attempted to remain anonymous during the initial investigation but was later outed by Florida State fans and Winston's lawyer -- is now suing Florida State.

"FSU plays a prominent part in the film in a one-sided segment accusing Tallahassee police and the university of ignoring sexual assault allegations against former quarterback Jameis Winston to protect the athletic program," Thrasher stated. "CNN will be airing a piece of advocacy that is more about blame and emotion than accuracy, fairness and inclusion. This is a lost opportunity to have a full, fair and meaningful discussion on the national stage about the complex issue of sexual assault on college campuses."

In his statement, Thrasher did not specify what the documentary gets wrong about the case. On Monday, the film's official Twitter account tweeted a response, saying the film's producers were not surprised by the president's comments as the "facts make FSU look pretty bad."

This is not the first time the filmmakers have had to defend The Hunting Ground against critics. Earlier this year, several university presidents complained that they were not given enough time to respond to the production team's interview requests. In June, the producers posted a detailed fact page on the film's website after Slate published an article questioning some of the documentary's claims. Last week, 19 Harvard professors released a lengthy statement calling the documentary "propaganda," and criticizing the film's portrayal of an accused student's case.

"It’s obvious that Florida State University does not want the public to see the film because it shows how they protected their star quarterback against allegations of rape," the filmmakers said in a statement Tuesday. "Rather than attacking the film, we encourage President Thrasher to respond as other college presidents have, such as those from Harvard, Montana, Amherst and Alaska, by acknowledging the undisputed gravity of this problem and taking measures to prevent it. Thrasher should stop blaming the messenger and focus on the message.”

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