Don't like criticism? Say it contributes to a "hostile climate."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Professor Jeannie Suk (Harvard Law School) writes in the New Yorker (some paragraph breaks added):

Last month, near the time that CNN broadcast the documentary "The Hunting Ground," which focuses on four women who say their schools neglected their claims of sexual assault, I joined eighteen other Harvard Law School professors in signing a statement that criticized the film's "unfair and misleading" portrayal of one case from several years ago.

A black female law student accused a black male law student of sexually assaulting her and her white female friend. The accuser, Kamilah Willingham, has graduated from the law school and is featured in the film. The accused, Brandon Winston, who spent four years defending himself against charges of sexual misconduct, on campus and in criminal court, was ultimately cleared of sexual misconduct and has been permitted to reënroll. The group that signed the statement, which includes feminist, black, and leftist faculty, wrote that this was a just outcome. . . .

[L]ast week the filmmakers did more than understandably disagree with criticism of the film, which has been short-listed for the Academy Award for best documentary. They wrote, in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, that "the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law."

The words "hostile climate" contain a serious claim. At Harvard, sexual harassment is "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including verbal conduct that is "sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe" so as to create a "hostile environment." If, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors' statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined.

To my knowledge, no complaint of sexual harassment has been filed with Harvard's Title IX office-though I've been told by a high-level administrator that several people have inquired about the possibility-and I don't know if the school would proceed with an investigation. Precedent for such an investigation exists in the case of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern University, who earlier this year wrote an article criticizing aspects of Title IX policies and culture and was accused of creating a hostile environment on campus; Northwestern conducted an investigation and ultimately cleared Kipnis of sexual-harassment charges.

A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors' statement about the film. 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. . . .

This is the set of axioms on which one might build a suggestion that challenging the accuracy of "The Hunting Ground" contributes to a hostile environment on campus. If I am a student at a school where professors seem to disbelieve one accuser's account, then it is possible that they could disbelieve me if I am assaulted.

That possibility makes me feel both that I am unsafe and that my school is a sexually hostile environment. Under this logic, individuals would not feel safe on campus unless they could know that professors are closed off to the possibility that a particular person accused of sexual misconduct may be innocent or wrongly accused.

But, then, what would be the purpose of a process in which evidence on multiple sides is evaluated?

Much worth reading.