Campus alumna, 2 graduate students to challenge defamation claims from Blake Wentworth

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Two UC Berkeley graduate students and one alumna named in a pair of defamation suits by campus assistant professor Blake Wentworth will file a motion to dismiss his complaint amidst a campus investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.

The three women — who all filed complaints against Wentworth, an assistant professor in the South and Southeast Asian studies department, last spring – have decried Wentworth’s alleged sexual misconduct and the prevalence of harassment on campus. Wentworth filed two suits on Sept. 20 and Sept. 22, respectively, arguing the allegations against him constituted defamation, false light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“I see this lawsuit as an attempt to silence survivors of abuse. It is a scare tactic,” Erin Bennett, a campus graduate student named in the defamation suit, said in an email. “It is time-consuming and disheartening, but we as survivors will not allow it to shut us up.”

Last year, the campus Title IX office found Wentworth had violated UC sexual misconduct policy in one of two complaints filed by two campus graduate students, Bennett and Kathleen Gutierrez.

In April, Bennett and Gutierrez filed a state complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or DFEH, accusing the campus of mishandling their respective cases. One month later, campus alumna Nicole Hemenway also filed lawsuits alleging Wentworth, who served as her honors thesis adviser, had sexually harassed her and that the campus had failed to provide a safe work environment.

“I do not want any of the recent events to set a precedent for any student not to come forward lest they fear a lawsuit,” Gutierrez said in an email.

Wentworth’s defamation suits refer to alleged “misstatements” about him circulated by the New York Daily News, the Guardian, The Daily Californian and other print media. The suits also identify alleged “false statements” made in the DFEH complaint and alleges that the women used the process with malicious intent.

Defendants’ seek media attention, but we intend to stick to the evidence and judicial process,” said Michael Hoffman, a lawyer representing Wentworth, in an email.

Faculty in the Department of South and Southeast Asian studies declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. In March, tenured faculty in the department condemned the length of a campus investigation into a case of alleged sexual harassment in a letter to the administration.

The motion to dismiss Wentworth’s case will argue his suits are strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, according to Paul Clifford, who is representing the three women named in the cases. He added that causes of action against a person by exercising free speech in a official government proceeding — such as the filing or details of a Title IX complaint — are protected under California law.

The classification of a case as SLAPP “indicates a lack of evidence and legal merit,” Hoffman said in an email. He added that Wentworth’s suits are “grounded on case law and the evidence.”

Wentworth is on paid leave and the campus investigation remains underway, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

Contact Chloee Weiner at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_chloeew .