We Can’t Try the Woody Allen Sex Abuse Case in the Court of Public Opinion

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 5 2014 3:08 PM

Woody Allen v. Dylan Farrow

The Court of Public Opinion is now in session.

Woody Allen
Woody Allen reads a statement to the press on Aug. 18, 1992, saying he was falsely accused of molesting his two youngest children in a scheme by Mia Farrow to retain custody.

Photo by Hai Do/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to the Court of Public Opinion. We have continued People v. Bieber (2014) so that we can instead relitigate Allen v. Farrow (1992). To be perfectly clear, the court must state up front that in the Court of Public Opinion there are no rules of evidence, no burdens of proof, no cross-examinations, and no standards of admissibility. There are no questions and also no answers. Also, please be aware that in the Court of Public Opinion, choosing silence or doubt is itself a prosecutable offense.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Look, I am as maddened as the next guy at the persistent inability of our legal system to conclusively resolve so many disputed sexual assault cases. Under the very best of circumstances, the system strains to uncover the truth. And under the strain of 20-plus years and dueling judges, the system often just buckles. I am as aware as anyone of the baked-in asymmetry that pervades a culture that encourages violence and degradation of women, and that silences their reports with shame. I am fully cognizant of the extent to which our judicial system can fail when it comes to conflicts between powerful men and powerless young girls. But in the current debate about what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow in a Connecticut farmhouse in 1992, it massively disserves and undermines the most basic goals of the legal system when we import legal concepts into what is essentially a barroom brawl. You’re pissed, good. I’m pissed, too. But this widespread litigation by hashtag, all dressed up in legal language and presumptions, isn’t getting us any closer to justice.

After Nick Kristof published Dylan Farrow’s letter detailing the abuse she experienced as a child, Aaron Bady wrote a fantastic piece for the New Inquiry about rape culture and violence to women, but he rooted it in the baffling notion that Farrow must be afforded the same “presumption of innocence” as Allen. This is a nonlegal deployment of a legal notion that sets up readers to pick sides without hearing all of the actual evidence. Kristof himself conflates the coherent legal “standard to send someone to prison [that] is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” with the completely baffling “standard to honor someone.” And while I agree with my Slate colleague Amanda Marcotte on most things, when she suggests dropping to a preponderance of the evidence standard in the “court of public opinion,” all I can think is: What evidence? What standard? What court? We haven’t seen most of the evidence. Evidence in this case has been destroyed. Experts were never cross-examined. Different judges came to different conclusions. What evidence are we weighing? What “court” are we convening here, and what are the rules of the road? Do we even take conflicting evidence into consideration? What kind of evidence is “admissible”? Calling Mia Farrow a “whore”? Calling Dylan Farrow a “bitch”? Closely reading Allen’s movies? Do we consider that some of the advocates on each side are cretins? I have no idea. In the Court of Public Opinion, the one-eyed man with the most Twitter followers is king.

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Let’s be clear about our terms here: You are entitled to your opinions about what happened between Allen and Farrow in 1992, and you are entitled to your accompanying opinions about whether children can be coached to lie and whether rich men transgress boundaries without consequence. Failing to have an opinion about the latter suggests you live in a hole, but failing to have an opinion about the former is not a moral lapse. You are also entitled to the many and conflicting inferences you may draw from the articles summarizing the evidence, and the articles summarizing the articles summarizing the evidence, and the statements made by the now-28-year-old Farrow herself, and by Allen responding that her accusation is “disgraceful,” and now by her brother Moses Farrow claiming that Allen is being unjustly accused. I have opinions as well.

But recognize that these are opinions and inferences, not “evidence.” They are not “cases,” and we are not adjudicating this mess in any kind of court. Recognize that dressing your personal opinions up in fancy talk of “burdens of proof” and “presumptions of innocence” helps clarify almost nothing and confuses a great deal. Mob justice often has all the trappings of an unbiased search for truth, but it’s actually just an (understandable) outpouring of rage and blame. We have statutes of limitation, not to punish complaining witnesses but because the legal system recognizes that memories and evidence are degraded over time, even as umbrage on both side burns brighter than ever.

Investigative journalism is one thing. But the Court of Public Opinion is what we used to call villagers with flaming torches. It has no rules, no arbiter, no mechanism at all for separating truth from lies. It allows everything into evidence and has no mechanism to separate facts about the case from the experiences and political leanings of the millions of us who are all acting as witnesses, judges, and jurors. So go ahead and tweet your truth or publicly shame someone who is tweeting hers, but don’t believe for an instant that this is how complicated factual disputes get resolved or that this will change hearts and minds about our woefully anti-woman, anti-victim culture.

The Court of Public Opinion is a wonderful place to be heard, to test new ideas, and an even more gratifying place to tear apart those whose opinions offend us. It rarely brings about justice for the parties in a lawsuit, however, because the Court of Public Opinion is usually more about us than them. The one thing the legal system carefully protects against is the perfect narcissism of believing that we are the only ones in the courtroom who matter. And that’s the one quality our media most often rewards.

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