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Anthony Rapp-Kevin Spacey’s lawsuit wrongly implicates #MeToo

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The child abuse lawsuit filed by actor Anthony Rapp against Oscar winner Kevin Spacey — one of the entertainment industry’s most prominent early #MeToo claims — ended in a win for Spacey Thursday. But he wasn’t the only one on trial.

As the proceedings progressed, it became clear that the legitimate efforts of the #MeToo movement to enable silent survivors of sexual abuse to reveal their suffering and end the scourge of sexual assault were also being challenged. And it didn’t matter which of the two individuals prevailed in the lawsuit: The damage was inflicted in the opening statements, held up during the trial, and cemented in during closing arguments.

Both sides can accommodate biases that the jurors might have. For the defense, in this case, it was a good bet to appeal to the anti-#MeToo sentiment, as surveys show it is rampant in some populations.

The focus of the testimony heard by the jury involved a decades-old assault charge when Rapp, then 14, was a guest at Spacey’s apartment. Spacey, now 63, was 26 at the time. After Rapp made his allegations public in 2017, Spacey originally responded on Twitter by stating that he did not remember the incident, but that he would owe Rapp “the sincere apology” for “very inappropriate drunken behavior” if he was guilty. The jury had to decide from that whether his statement was a confession?what impact excessive alcohol consumption had, and who could accurately remember this.

Despite saying on Twitter that he didn’t remember what happened, Spacey conceded during the process of having social contact with Rapp at the time. He admitted that Rapp was in his apartment. He told the jury that he remembered having no interest in Rapp, who was “like a kid” the night he met him. Instead, he recalled flirting that night with another young actor, John Barrowman, then 19, who was “like a man.”

Meanwhile, Spacey’s lawyers took Rapp to account for alleging abuse had taken place in Spacey’s bedroom. They claimed that Spacey .’s studio apartment did not have a separate bedroom.

The jury had to sift through the conflicting evidence to find the truth. But in doing so, it was made to look at this evidence through the lens of innuendo about the #MeToo movement and speculation about its impact on Rapp’s allegations.

In her opening statement, Spacey attorney Jennifer Keller said squarely: focused on the #MeToo movement: “One of the cardinal rules of the so-called MeToo movement [is] that you have to believe the victim. You’ll see Mr. Spacey say, ‘This didn’t happen, I don’t remember’… They told him to apologise. It was cleverly set up by Mr Rapp.”

And while testifying at the trial, Spacey denied any wrongdoing, accusing his Twitter response of being the product of misguided “crisis management” against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. That’s what he said at the time of Rapp’s allegations: “The industry was very nervous. There was a lot of fear in the air about who would be next.”

Actor Anthony Rapp, right, and his partner Ken Ithiphol, arrive in federal court in New York on October 19, 2022.
Actor Anthony Rapp, right, and his partner Ken Ithiphol arrive in federal court in New York on Wednesday. Angela Weiss / AFP – Getty Images

Keller also used a well-known trope to dismiss accusations against powerful Hollywood men in the wake of #MeToo by attributing Rapp’s motivations to seeking publicity.

In her opening statementKeller told the jury that the case was about one actor jealous of another: “Although Anthony Rapp made a living as an actor, a working actor, which is not an easy thing to do, he never became the international star that Kevin Spacey is, who could play almost any role.” In closing argumentsKeller again hinted at the claim, “So here we are today and Mr. Rapp is getting more attention from this process than he’s had in his entire acting life.”

Rapp also played a role in putting #MeToo in the crosshairs. He repeated his embrace of the #MeToo Movement after losing the process. He defiantly stated that his lawsuit was “part of the larger movement to stand up to all forms of sexual violence”.

It is a problem that the movement became the center of the case in the courtroom. The rules of evidence prohibit speculative testimony because it is not proof. The jury should only focus on actual evidence that Spacey abused a child. The jurors shouldn’t have been asked — as they in fact were — to bring a move to court based on innuendo and speculation about her role in Rapp’s lawsuit.

However, it is no coincidence that the jury was placed in that position. It is unethical for trial attorneys to discriminate on the basis of gender, age, and other such protected classes during jury selection. But both sides can accommodate biases that the jurors might have. For the defense, in this case, it was a good bet to appeal to the anti-#MeToo sentiment, as surveys show it is rampant in some populations.

Opinion polls show that that only about half of Americans support the movement, and that there is deep division in how men and women view it. There are even deeper divisions along political party lines. When it comes to age, less than half of men over 30 support it.

The jurors shouldn’t have been asked — as they in fact were — to bring a move to court based on innuendo and speculation about her role in Rapp’s lawsuit.

As a matter of principle, we would like anyone who alleges a sex crime to have the evidence presented to a jury to determine what happened. And as a matter of principle, we would like anyone faced with such charges to be tried fairly on the basis of the evidence. When cases are fraught with divisive social issues beyond the facts, we risk both principles.

Many in the press have exacerbated this interlacing. In a typical example, Variety magazine called the Rapp-Spacey trial a #MeToo case that raises issues of “imbalances of power…the dynamics of sexual assault, the reliability of memories, and the nature of due process.”

But that was a totally gratuitous framing. This dynamic is exactly what was at stake in every sex crime case before the movement existed. Sex criminals overpowered their victims. Survivors delayed reporting the crimes and their memories were subsequently challenged for their reliability. The procedural rights of the accused were defended by defense lawyers.

There was no reason to allow the trial to demonize a movement that encourages the reporting of sex crimes and discourages sexual abuse. There was no reason to distract the jury from facts about whether child sexual abuse had occurred by forcing her to look at the evidence through a sociopolitical lens.

How the trial was conducted matters to people other than Rapp and Spacey. Still taciturn sex crime survivors watching the proceedings wondered whether their claims would be judged on the merits of the evidence alone. Those silent survivors had their answer before the verdict was handed down.

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