Could False Accusations Threaten the #MeToo Movement?
A dozen years ago, Tarana Burke created the slogan, “Me Too.” Burke, a Bronx, N.Y.-born African American civil rights activist, created the saying as a means to help women who had survived sexual violence.
Years later, the hashtag “#MeToo” took off, initially without properly crediting Burke.
The movement also seemed initially to exclude women of color or, in the view of many, disproportionately focus on victimized white women – prompting Burke to passionately tell African American women earlier this year, “don’t opt yourself out of what was started for you because the media isn’t acknowledging your hurt.”
Mostly white actresses in Hollywood have become the public face of the movement and men like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Les Moonves have lost their high-profile jobs.
The success for proponents has been increasingly measured in terms of the career, stature, title or reputation loss experienced by the growing group of the (mostly men) accused in the media and a much smaller segment of accused that have been charged and/or convicted of crimes.
As some in the movement include Bill Cosby’s conviction on aggravated indecent assault charges as another consequence of #MeToo, the pending charges and trial outcomes against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein remain unsettled.
Cosby’s trials were so adversely impacted by media rhetoric and public perception that the inaccurate reporting of the actual substance was an unsworn-in additional witness against him — including a prosecutor who cited Cosby’s conviction as a centerpiece of his election campaign.
In fact, even though videos have emerged of several professional football players and other celebrities physically assaulting women in hotel lobbies, elevators and hallways, Cosby may ultimately find himself as the sole accused celebrity who serves actual prison time.
Most recently, the movement was also credited for canceled office holiday parties and a growing number of radio stations refusing to play the classic song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” after many claimed that the singer is trying to persuade a woman to stay with him by offering her a drink.
“While it’s critically important that women who’ve been assaulted are heard, we cannot forget about the fundamental right to due process that our great country was founded upon,” said Andrew Miltenberg, one of the nation’s leading due process attorneys.
“This is a dangerous time in our nation’s history, reminiscent of the days of McCarthyism, where a single accusation is enough to end a career. Even baseless charges can ruin a lifetime of work in some situations,” Miltenberg said.
With more than 200 men losing positions and Cosby jailed, some are beginning to look at the movement with a suspect eye.
Actor Sean Penn famously said the campaign has been too black and white and it has divided men and women. Penn also said the movement “is being led by mania.”
He told NBC’s Today Show that he’d like to think that none of it was influenced by what they call the movement of #MeToo. “I think it’s influenced by the things that are developing in terms of empowerment of women who’ve been acknowledging each other and being acknowledged by men,” Penn told Today. “This is a movement that was largely shouldered by a kind of receptacle of the salacious.”
When the show’s host, Natalie Morales, asked Penn to clarify his use of the word “salacious,” the actor doubled-down. “Well, we don’t know what’s a fact in many of the cases,” Penn said.
“Salacious is as soon as you call something a movement that is really a series of many individual accusers, victims [and] accusations, some of which are unfounded,” he said. “I don’t know the percentages, but I know that there are some lies that have been told publicly about people; I know of some serious omissions. I’m talking about women towards men.”
Actress and former Playboy model Pamela Anderson has also criticized the #MeToo movement.
She has argued that many of the cases stem from actresses taking meetings in hotel suites alone with male executives. Anderson has argued that she’d never go to a man’s private hotel suite for a business meeting alone, particularly if the man answering the door is “only wearing a robe.”
“I think this feminism can go too far,” she said in an interview earlier this year with Australia’s “60 Minutes.”
“I’m a feminist, but I think that this third wave of feminism is a bore. I think it paralyzes men,” she said. “My mother taught me don’t go to a hotel with a stranger. If someone opens the door in a bathrobe and it’s supposed to be a business meeting, maybe I should go with somebody else. I think some things are just common sense. Or, if you go in, get the job.”
At its best, the #MeToo movement has been a much-needed corrective to the abuses of power, said Attorney Justin Dillon of the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Kaiser Dillon PLLC. “At its worst, though, it’s been an excuse to unfairly ruin people’s lives and reputations without any form of due process or testing of the allegations.”
“There is no #MeToo court [where] you can go to get your reputation back and filing a real lawsuit is prohibitively expensive for most people. Plus, the media often confuses allegations with proof, which is both lazy and harmful,” Dillon said.
Celebrities and business moguls aren’t alone in feeling the brunt of the #MeToo movement.
Even children have been accused.
Nine-year-old New Yorker, Jeremiah Harvey, who is black, was falsely accused of groping and sexually assaulting Teresa Klein, a white woman, at a Brooklyn store.
Klein, later dubbed “Cornerstone Caroline” by social media, called police after she falsely accused young Jeremiah of assault – cameras showed the child never touched Klein.
“I felt humiliated because of the way she was acting,” Jeremiah said in a later broadcast interview.
Historically, false allegations of sexual assault have been a frequent and persistent phenomenon – particularly for Black men.
Earlier this year, the 1992 convictions of Van Dyke Perry and Gregory Counts, two African American men, were vacated when the alleged victim revised her story after new DNA evidence was discovered that exonerated the two men.
“Like so many other cases that have come to light in recent years, these young black men were aggressively prosecuted and given lengthy prison sentences with very little care for finding the truth,” Seema Saifee, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, said in a statement.
Of course, the most prominent example of someone paying a high price for a sexual assault they didn’t commit was Emmett Till. Till, who was black and only 14-years old, would never reach his 15thbirthday after becoming the victim of a lynching and murder in Mississippi, igniting the Civil Rights movement in 1955.
In 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, Till’s accuser, admitted that she lied. According to a story filed by Jerry Mitchell for the Clarion Ledger, “… Carolyn Bryant Donham has admitted she lied when she testified that Till touched her — a lie she repeated to the FBI a decade ago.”
“‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,’ Donham was quoted as saying. Bryant admitted her lie to Tim Tyson, author of the new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, but she never gave a reason why.”
Before Emmett Till, there was the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931.
That case was tried in front of an all-white jury and fraught with problems, including lynch mobs, threats of violence and injustice.
Modern day allegations have also torn apart college campuses.
In a recent Glamour magazine article, “Inside the Organizations that Support College Rapists,” LillyDancyger writes, “On the other end of the spectrum, [Alice] True [Founder of] Save Our Sons cites a statistic that one in three students found guilty of sexual misconduct through Title IX hearings are in fact innocent—a statistic that comes from a UCLA study that focused on mathematical probability of false accusations without analyzing actual cases.”
The nonprofit Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) notes that many college students have been tried and convicted and have had their reputations and lives torn apart over allegations that haven’t proven true.
According to FACE, at least 200 students claiming to have been falsely accused or found guilty of sexual assault on their campuses, have filed lawsuits against their colleges, administrators and/or their accusers over the past several years.
Officials said there are more lawsuits pending across the country while nearly 100 court decisions have been issued in favor of accused students since 2013.
These lawsuits claim violations of due process, breach of contract and infliction of emotional distress, as well as decisions tainted by gender bias under Title IX, according to FACE’s website.
One parent recounted the story of her son, a student who was exonerated of sexual assault charges:
“My son John Doe was charged by an ex-girlfriend with misconduct and exonerated — completely and unanimously — by the hearing panel. The accuser was a deeply troubled young woman (drug overdoses, psychiatric hospitalizations, fantasy rape claims, etc.) who – 5 months after the fact and 3 months after their relationship ended — accused John Doe of attempting to go slightly farther than they’d gone before (though stopping when she asked him to), an act that she apparently did not find too horrifying as she remained in his bed for the remainder of the night and continued to sleep with him for the ensuing month; her claim was filed only after mutual friends reported that he’d found a new girlfriend. At the hearing she conceded that he’d asked for consent and she’d granted it, and that he’d stopped immediately when she thereafter asked him to — a fact that would have been nice to know but apparently was never asked by the university’s investigator.”
FACE officials said there are many, many more unjustly accused students who have resolved their disputes without legal action or are constrained by college-imposed confidentiality policies, and those whose claims have been settled are almost always bound by confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements, officials said.
And of course, there are those whose futures have been devastated because they did not have the knowledge or resources to challenge the findings, and their college or university refused to acknowledge their innocence, FACE argues.
“I can tell you that the wrongfully accused suffer greatly, as is obvious from their loss of not just their educations and careers, but they often become isolated from friends and sometimes family as well,” said FACE co-president Cynthia P. Garrett.
“In the campus context we have seen over a thousand accused students mostly devastated, despondent and some suicidal. The majority admit to having considered suicide and a few have been successful,” Garrett said.
“What’s happening in the United States today is the abandonment of men and men’s issues in general, and black men and minorities in particular,” Garrett added.
“Other countries like the United Kingdom and Australia have developed men’s initiatives because they see how men and boys are falling behind at all levels of education.
Meanwhile the United States has done absolutely nothing to resolve what is becoming a National crisis,” she said.
Sejal Singh, a policy and advocacy coordinator for Know Your IX, tells Glamour magazine, “We often see schools deny these rights [to adequate time to prepare for hearings and opportunities to present evidence] to survivors, tilting investigations in favor of abusers. By guaranteeing them to both sides, we can make sure school disciplinary procedures are more fair, which serves not just survivors and accused students, but the whole student body, who should have confidence in the investigation process.”
“Schools investigate and discipline students for code of conduct issues that are also crimes—like, say, stealing or getting in a fistfight with another student—all the time,” Singh points out. “There’s no push to stop schools from investigating those cases; instead, there’s an exceptional skepticism reserved for rape victims. I think some of the push to create uniquely high barriers to justice for sexual violence victims reflects the insidious, misogynistic belief that women and survivors are liars ‘crying rape’—the same myth that gets Bill Cosby acquitted or that voters use to excuse Donald Trump’s sexual assaults.”
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