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Al Franken case gets more complicated

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) prepares last week for

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) prepares last week for a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington. Credit: Getty Images / Mark Wilson

Things looked bad for Sen. Al Franken over the weekend after sports commentator and model Leeann Tweeden accused the former comedian of forcible kissing and groping while they were on tour before American troops in Kuwait in 2006. A second accuser who says he squeezed her rear during a photo opportunity in 2010, when the Minnesota Democrat was already in the Senate, might prove the final nail in the coffin of his career.

Should Franken lose his seat to send the message that abuse of women cannot be tolerated? Or is his predicament a sign that the #MeToo movement, which encourages women to disclose past sexual abuse, has become a witch hunt?

These are questions with no simple answers — and with plenty of bad arguments on both sides.

On Sunday night, I believed that Franken was unfairly targeted — and I say that as someone who doesn’t like him personally or politically. Tweeden’s incriminating photo, which she says shows Franken groping her breasts while she slept on the flight back, actually shows him miming a grope while mugging for the camera, with no physical contact. Her other charge — that Franken badgered her into rehearsing a kiss for a sketch and was overly aggressive during that kiss — is the sort of thing that could stem from a misunderstanding. Franken, who apologized for making Tweeden feel disrespected, says he remembers that interaction differently.

The incident should also be seen in the context of the vulgar culture of modern comedy, and specifically of rowdy performances before the troops. Franken’s defenders have posted images of Tweeden on tour squeezing a male guitarist’s behind and engaging in simulated sexual contact with a soldier. The predictable response is “victim-blaming.” But while Tweeden’s raunchiness would not excuse sexual assault, surely it could give Franken some leeway to think crude behavior was par for the course.

The new allegation, by Texan Lindsay Merz, complicates things. Merz says that when she visited the Minnesota State Fair in 2010 and posed for a photo with Franken, he “put his hand full-fledged on rear.” She mentioned this to her husband and her parents afterward; later, she shared the photo on Facebook and wrote that Franken “molested” her.

He says he doesn’t remember the photo opportunity with Merz. Should her account be enough to convict him, at least in the court of public opinion? Could she have exaggerated the physical contact? Does it matter that she is smiling in the photo and does not seem startled?

Progressives who want Franken to resign applaud the fact our culture is finally “trusting women” on accusations of sexual assault. It is certainly true that in the past, accusers — especially of powerful men — were too often dismissed and smeared. But reports of abuse need serious and fair scrutiny; no one, female or male, deserves uncritical trust.

Meanwhile, many conservatives are using Franken as a counterweight to Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate facing several allegations of molesting or pursuing underage girls — as if the charges against Franken were remotely in the same league. And some liberal feminists say that even if Franken is a sexual harasser, he should stay in the Senate because he’s a champion of women’s rights — which smacks of, “It’s OK when our side does it” hypocrisy.

Without more evidence, I still think Franken should stay as a matter of fairness. But it is also worth noting that he recently deplored efforts to restore due process for students accused of sexual misconduct under Title IX.

Perhaps now, he can appreciate the need for “innocent until proven guilty.”

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.