Tag Archives: false accusations

Three Men Unfairly Branded as Campus Rapists

This past weekend, Fox News ran a special report about how colleges and universities across the country are handling sexual assault. The documentary (in which I appeared) ran counter to the prevailing narrative that schools are hotbeds of sexual assault where accusers aren’t taken seriously.

The report, hosted by Martha MacCallum, follows the stories of three men accused of sexual assault and the way they were branded as rapists despite evidence to the contrary in a culture that says we should believe all accusations regardless of merit.

“We’ve long heard that government is best kept out of the bedroom, but as it turns out, in colleges across the nation, government is insisting that it be referee in life’s most intimate moments,” MacCallum says at the beginning of the report. ”

Case One—uh-oh, a Piece of Gum. MacCallum detailed the story of an accused student at Occidental College, whose face was hidden on camera and who was referred to as John Doe. John Doe and his accuser, referred to as Jane Doe, had both been drinking. They were separated at one point but exchanged phone numbers and began texting. John invited Jane back to his dorm and she found her way back, but not before vomiting in a hallway.

She returned to John’s dorm and the two had sex. The next day, they discussed the situation for several hours and decided to just be friends. Jane would eventually speak about her misgivings over the evening to the school’s sexual assault advocate, who appears to have convinced her she had been raped. Jane filed a report with police, who determined that both students were drunk but neither was raped. Jane then went to administrators at Occidental, who initially agreed with the police.

Related: U. of Michigan Screws Up in ‘Rape’ Case

Occidental would then review the case and reverse its position without any new evidence. Suddenly, John was found responsible for sexual assault and expelled. One of the major pieces of “evidence” used to determine his guilt was the claim that he had given Jane a piece of gum when she went back to his room.

“Because I had given her a piece of gum I somehow should have known she was – ‘incapacitated’ was the word [Occidental] used,” John told Fox News. “I don’t even remember giving her a piece of gum.”

Asking for gum prior to an intimate situation is commonplace. Using that as evidence that John should have known she was too drunk (and not merely concerned she had bad breath, say, from eating a garlicky dinner) would turn a lot of consensual encounters into sexual assault.

The documentary also discusses how we got to the point where college administrators are adjudicating felony sexual assault. It all started with a letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That letter was not subject to congressional approval or a proper review, yet it placed financial burdens on colleges to devote time and resources to creating pseudo-courts.

MacCallum talked to Russlyn Ali, the woman who wrote the “Dear Colleague” letter, and asked her if it was just a guidance document or whether it had “teeth.” Ali contradicted herself from one sentence to the next.

Related: The Odd Sexual Accounting at Yale

“If colleges and universities don’t comply with the nation’s civil rights law, their federal funding can be withheld,” Ali said. “The guidance though, was exactly, Martha, as you indicated, it was guidance.”

But the letter altered the civil rights law to force colleges to adjudicate these crimes or risk losing federal funding. Ali can’t have it both ways.

Case 2—Columbia’s Mattress Girl. The report also walked through two other cases of accused students — Paul Nungesser of Columbia University and Corey Mock of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Nungesser was accused by Emma Sulkowicz, who became famous after dragging her mattress around campus in protest of the school not expelling Nungesser. Columbia found him “not responsible” for brutally raping her. Her friends also tried to accuse him of various sexual misconducts (an ex-girlfriend said he pressured her into sex during their relationship, another woman said he kissed her at a party without her consent and a man said Nungesser tried to grope him one night). He was found not responsible for the claim from his ex-girlfriend and the male student. He was found responsible for the nonconsensual kiss but that decision was overtur\ed on appeal.

Related: Did Mattress Girl Lie?

Police also questioned him about Sulkowicz’s claims but didn’t pursue an investigation.

MacCallum spoke to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been one of the leading advocates for campus sexual assault policies. MacCallum asked Gillibrand what she thought of the multiple investigations into Sulkowicz’s claims and the multiple findings that he was not responsible.

“I believe Emma,” Gillibrand said.

That’s a frightening thought. Nungesser produced Facebook messages showing Sulkowicz continued to talk to him — at times even lovingly — after he allegedly raped her. This was not a woman who was indebted to him as a wife or girlfriend. The two weren’t hanging out regularly after that, as Nungesser had moved on. A few months after the encounter, Nungesser sent Sulkowicz a birthday greeting. Sulkowicz replied the next morning: “I love you Paul.”

Yet months later, she was accusing him of rape and gained international fame for doing so. Meanwhile, Nungesser — innocent from multiple investigations — would be branded a rapist and subjected to death threats and isolated on campus.

Nungesser is suing Columbia for its complicity in Sulkowicz’s art project, which was set up to intimidate her fellow classmate.

Related: Amherst: No Pretense of Fairness

Case 3—A Tennessee Judge Appalled. The final story detailed by MacCallum involved Corey Mock. He was expelled after a sexual encounter with a fellow student, but a judge overturned the college’s decision because the burden of proof was unfairly placed on Mock. Mock was found responsible by his college in part because he couldn’t provide evidence that he had obtained consent. Essentially he was forced to prove an assault didn’t occur rather than having his accuser, Molly Morris, prove the assault did occur.

A female state judge found the university “improperly shifted the burden of proof and imposed an untenable standard upon Mr. Mock to disprove the accusation.”

Despite this victory, Mock will forever live with the accusation. Despite being found repeatedly not responsible, Nungesser continues to be branded a rapist. And despite text messages suggesting consensual sex, John Doe was still expelled and still struggling to get past the accusation.

MacCallum said the federal government and colleges are treating due process rights as “a pesky nuisance,” and suggested we make absolutely sure we understand the problem we’re trying to solve.

Related: Ten Campus Rapes, or Were They?  

She reminded viewers that women can misremember, misinterpret, lie, seek revenge and feel regretful — “not because they’re women, but because they’re human beings.”

“Most of us have sisters or daughters, and we want to make sure they’re safe, but we also have brothers and we have sons,” MacCallum said. “Advocates say: ‘We’ve got to think of the victim. We’ve got to do more for the victim.’ And they are absolutely right. We do have to think of the victim. That’s why in every case the first question should always be: Who is the victim?”

Because with every accusation, there is a victim. It might be the accuser, but it might be the falsely accused. It could be both students, who each made a poor decision. Colleges are currently — at the direction of the federal government — implementing procedures that make false accusations far more likely and more acceptable. Accusers are to be “believed” or else the school will face a federal investigation. Couple that with policies stating no accuser can be punished for coming forward, and schools are creating a recipe for abuse.The truth, above all else, should be the desired result in such cases. Sadly, colleges have every incentive right now to ignore the truth and find accused students responsible in the name of politics.

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Examiner.

‘The Hunting Ground,‘ an Ethically-Challenged Tainted Documentary

On Sunday night, CNN will air The Hunting Ground—a work of activist propaganda disguised as a documentary about sexual assault on American college campuses.

Among its numerous faults, the film blames the campus rape problem on a plague of serial rapists; expert opinion on this matter comes courtesy of psychologist David Lisak, whose misleading interpretation of his flawed research on serial predators is given center stage throughout the film. (ReadReason’s multi-part expose on the research underlying Lisak’s dubious theoryhere, here, and here, and see Linda M. LeFauve’s new article examining Lisak’s misleadingly constructed video interview with a rapist here.)

The Hunting Ground covers two high-profile sexual assault disputes in great detail. It goes to extraordinary lengths to paint the alleged assailants in these cases as perfect examples of Lisak’s model rapist, implying that these men are repeat offenders who plan out their crimes and drug their victims.

But in reality, it’s far from clear that The Hunting Ground’s accused rapists are even actually guilty—let alone serial sociopaths who stalk and incapacitate their victims.

The “Amazing Lie at the Heart of a Movie Claiming to be a Documentary”

Nineteen Harvard University law professors have denounced the film for (among other faults) misrepresenting the case of Harvard law student Brandon Winston, whose life was put on hold after a night of drunken, drug-fueled sexual contact resulted in his expulsion from the university and criminal charges.

“What our student did is not the kind of violent, repeat sexual assault that the movie claims is both the nature of the problem nationwide and that each of the people in the film are an example of that,” said Elizabeth Batholet, one of the Harvard law professors speaking out about The Hunting Ground’s errors, in an interview with Reason. “That’s an amazing lie at the heart of a movie claiming to be a documentary.”

The Hunting GroundThe Hunting Ground

Winston was accused of sexual misconduct by then-student Kamilah Willingham, who gives her one-sided account of the dispute toward the beginning of The Hunting Ground. According to Willingham, she and a female friend had drinks with Winston at her apartment, proceeded to a bar where Winston bought them more drinks, and then all three returned to her apartment in a state of inebriation, where Winston assaulted them while they slept. The clear implication from the film is that Winston is a monster frequently preys on his victims by drugging them and was ultimately able to elude justice because Harvard does not take victims seriously.

“He’s a predator,” Willingham says in the film “He’s dangerous.”

But, as Slate’s Emily Yoffe discovered in her groundbreaking investigation of the dispute earlier this year, the real story was much different. There is no evidence that Winston drugged the women; on the contrary, Willingham and Winston both consumed cocaine that Willingham herself had supplied. Willingham used a bloody condom she discovered in her wastebasket as evidence that her friend had been violently raped, but DNA evidence ruled out the possibility that the condom had been used by Winston (though it did match Willingham).

Nor is it true that Winston escaped wholly unpunished, as The Hunting Ground implies. Harvard initially recommended his expulsion, and repeatedly placed him on academic leave, but reinstated him after determining that insufficient evidence existed to brand the encounter as assault. A grand jury declined to indict him on any charges having to do with Willingham; he was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of nonsexual touching of Willingham’s friend. The film’s only reference to these facts is through some text briefly displayed at the very end.

The accusation put Winston’s future on hold for three years. A young black man with no history of criminal activity had to suspend a promising education at Harvard law school while both university administrators and the court system adjudicated the accusations against him.

“Three good years of his life have gone solely to this,” said Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley, who also rejects The Hunting Ground’s narrative, in an interview with Reason. “It’s not right for the filmmakers to extend it out to yet another trial in the court of public opinion, when the underlying claims have been so conclusively rejected. It’s bad for the overall effort for justice, and it’s bad for this young man.”

 “Major Distortions and Glaring Omissions”

The Hunting Ground’s case against former Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; no relation to Brandon Winston) is similarly plagued by inaccuracies. Accuser Erica Kinsman claimed Winston drugged her at a bar, forced her back to his apartment, and raped her on the bathroom floor.

Kinsman says in the film that she’s “fairly certain” the drink Winston (or one of his friends) gave her was spiked, but two separate toxicology reports established that there were no date-rape drugs in her system on the night of the incident. Indeed, Kinsman has repeatedly changed the details of her story, first saying she passed out after consuming the drink and was unable to recall how she got into a car with Winston, and later saying she was coerced or intimidated into the car (something investigators thought was dubious, given that there were a lot of other people around at the time). The facts undermine the idea that she was preyed on by Winston, who was eventually cleared of sexual assault during a university hearing run by a retired Florida Supreme Court justice. Winston is now suing Kinsman for defamation.

In a statement chiding CNN for deciding to screen The Hunting Ground, FSU President John Thrasher excoriated the film for its “major distortions and glaring omissions.” Its producers have fallen into the same trap as Rolling Stone’s editors did with their discredited story about gang rape at the University of Virginia, wrote Thrasher.

“A Film Project That Is Very Much in the Corner of Advocacy”

The makers of The Hunting Ground, of course, are not interested in anything resembling the truth. Indeed, an email from investigative producer Amy Herdy made public confirmed recently this beyond any doubt. In the email, Herdy told Kinsman’s lawyer that the makers of The Hunting Ground, “do not operate the same way as journalists—this is a film project that is very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.” In a separate email, Herdy discusses tactics for “ambushing” Jameis Winston.

While the cases against the two Winstons don’t stand up to scrutiny, The Hunting Ground does manage to identify a single serial predator: an unnamed man whose face is blurred for his interview with the filmmakers. This man confesses that he was incarcerated for sexual assault and hopes that by coming forward, he is educating the public about how to prevent people like him from committing attacks. His monologue is interspersed with separate commentary from Lisak. Here is a transcript of that part of the film:

Man: “I was incarcerated for six and a half years for sexual assault. I know I was at fault. Like I said, the reason I really wanted to do this interview was to help someone else out. Maybe to have them become aware of what they are doing wrong.”

Lisak: “The really practiced sex offenders identify groups of people who are more vulnerable.”

Man: “College is the place where lots of alcohol is consumed and the number of victims is endless.”

Lisak: “These men select victims ahead of time. It could be a bar, it could be a fraternity party where people are drinking.”

Man: “At the parties, like frat parties, I mean people are getting wasted. So it’s not like a lot of the time dependent on who they’re with. Nobody keeps an eye on them.”

Lisak: “The alcohol is essentially a weapon that is used to render somebody extremely vulnerable.”

Man: “Alcohol definitely makes it easier to overpower a victim if they’re inebriated or under the influence. Less struggle for sure.”

Lisak: “Then there is an isolation phase. So if somebody who has deliberately gotten this young woman extremely intoxicated, and at some point he says to her, ‘I’ll walk you back to your room,’ or ‘you can sleep it off if you want, we have a bed upstairs.’ And that’s where the assault occurs.”

The film’s only case of clear-cut predation, then, is supported exclusively by an anonymous interview that provides no checkable details. 

The film also claims eight percent of men in college commit 90 percent of the assaults and that the average number of assaults per rapist is six. The citation, of course, belongs to Lisak’s 2002 study, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists.” But as Reason confirmed in its previous invesitgations of Lisak’s work—and Lisak himself confirmed—that study wasn’t actually about college students, and didn’t ask participants about crimes committed on campuses.

A Representative Case?

Is The Hunting Ground’s anonymous predator—whose crimes are implied, but not confirmed, to have taken place on a campus—a representative case?

The interview bears a striking similarity to one conducted by Lisak decade ago. Lisak allegedly sat down with a serial rapist who was also fraternity brother and interviewed him about is methods. This conversation was later replicated by an actor and passed off as an anti-rape educational material dubbed an interview with an undetected rapist, and known as “the Frank video.”

But, as a new investigation by Reason contributor Linda LeFauve reveals, the Frank video is a composite of several conversations with rapists—demonstrating that Lisak’s own stereotypical serial predator is a carefully concocted cut-and-paste character.  

The validity of Lisak’s theory was recently called into question by a new paper authored by Kevin Swartout, Mary Koss, Jacquelyn White, Martie Thompson, Antonia Abbey, and Alexandra Bellis. The authors found the serial predator theory to be based on “surprisingly limited” scientific evidence; their own study that most college rapists did not commit rapes across multiple years.

Lisak and his advocates have pushed back against this study, telling The Huffington Post that it contains significant flaws and ought to be retracted.

Nevertheless, Swartout said in an email to Reason that his team stands behind their work.

“We want to move the field forward by engaging in discussion of the issues through the peer review process,” he said.

Co-author Mary Koss told Reason that “no study is above reproach and we were and are open to constructive criticism and the need to make corrections if deemed necessary in the judgment of the editors.”

The science behind the serial predator theory, then, remains decidedly unsettled. But people who tune in to CNN on Sunday night won’t be treated to a nuanced examination of the question. Instead, they will be hit with a work of activist propaganda that wrongfully portrays college campuses as uniquely dangerous environments where women are literally hunted by sociopathic rapists.

“We who have spoken out at Harvard are completely committed to addressing sexual assault,” said Bartholet. “It’s horrible that this film is coming out that is now misrepresenting the nature of the problem and diverting attention away from how we can address it.”