Education

Professors Threatened With Investigation For Questioning Rape Documentary

A group of Harvard professors who criticized the campus rape documentary “The Hunting Ground” are being menaced with the possibility of a Title IX sexual harassment investigation intended to silence their criticisms.

The Hunting Ground,” released early this year, portrays American college campuses as hotbeds of sexual assault where administrators routinely allow perpetrators to get off scot-free. The film has attracted a great deal of criticism, though, both for the data it relies on and for the individual stories it uses to portray the campus rape epidemic. (RELATED: CNN’s New Rape Documentary Relies On Myths, Not Facts)

Last month, a group of 19 Harvard Law School professors published an open letter denouncing it as a “propaganda” film in advance of its airing on CNN. In particular, the professors criticized the film for its treatment of Brandon Winston, a Harvard law student whom the film treats as almost certainly guilty of raping fellow student Kamilah Willingham. In fact, a criminal grand jury failed to even indict Willingham of a sex crime, indicating a severe lack of evidence against him. (RELATED: Harvard Profs Denounce CNN Rape Documentary As ‘Propaganda’)

Now, though, activists appear to be searching for a way to have the professors silenced by the federal government for criticizing their film.

The activists’ weapon of choice is Title IX, the federal law barring gender discrimination in education. In recent years, the Obama administration has used Title IX to pressure schools on the topic of sexual assault, on the grounds that if a school doesn’t do enough to prevent sexual violence, it is denying women the equal opportunity to participate in education by creating a “hostile environment.” But activists are looking to be even more aggressive, essentially arguing those who counter their narrative are creating a “hostile environment” that amounts to sexual harassment and therefore violates Title IX.

The first sign of this line of thought emerged two weeks ago in a Harvard Crimson article discussing a website set up to defend Winston and argue he is innocent of the accusations against him. The article includes a statement from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the director and producer, respectively, of “The Hunting Ground,” who sharply attack the Harvard professors who signed the letter defending Winston.

“The Harvard Law professors’ letter is irresponsible and raises an important question about whether the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law,” the two write. That precise wording is important, because allowing a “hostile climate” is one way a school can be found in violation of Title IX. In other words, Dick and Ziering are suggesting professors critical of their film should be investigated and potentially punished for their statements on pain of Harvard losing all federal funding.

Last Friday, further evidence that activists are seeking to use the federal government to silence critics emerged in an article written by Harvard professor Jeannie Suk for The New Yorker. Suk, who signed November’s open letter, said a high-level administrator at Harvard told her several people inquired about filing a Title IX complaint against the professors.

“A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors’ statement about the film,” Suk writes. “If a Title IX complaint were filed and an investigation launched, the professors wouldn’t be permitted to speak about it, as that could be considered ‘retaliation’ against those who filed the complaint, which would violate the campus sexual-harassment policy.” In other words, even if the professors are not found responsible for violating Title IX, a mere complaint could be a potent weapon for activists to silence on-campus critics.

It may seem bizarre, but there is actually precedent for just such an investigation. Earlier this year, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis authored an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education recounting her own “Title IX inquisition.” Kipnis published an essay criticizing a recent university ban on romantic relationships between students and faculty, and shortly after was subjected to a months-long investigation by the school after students accused her essay of, by itself, creating a “hostile environment.” Kipnis was eventually cleared.

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