Time’s Up, the group founded by Hollywood power players to combat sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning, has spent the last week facing a reckoning of its own.
One of the group’s top members, Dr. Esther Choo, has been accused of silencing a woman who’s trying to report sexual harassment—and Time’s Up leadership is standing by Choo, even as at least 18 members of its sister group Time’s Up Healthcare have resigned in protest.
Time’s Up chair Roberta Kaplan, a powerhouse women’s rights attorney, confirmed to VICE News that she is now representing Choo, a fellow member of the Time’s Up board.
It all started with a $45 million federal lawsuit last month that accused Dr. Jason Campbell—known as the “TikTok Doc” for his viral dances on the platform—of sexually harassing and assaulting a coworker at Oregon Health and Science University.
Choo, who works as a professor of emergency medicine at the university, is not a defendant in the suit. But she’s accused of failing to report the alleged abuse, as required under Title IX, when the coworker told her about it in March 2020.
“I am representing Esther Choo, because she’s my friend,” said Kaplan, who’s also representing E. Jean Carroll in her defamation lawsuit against former President Donald Trump.
Kaplan’s status as Choo’s lawyer underscores just how much the top brass of Time’s Up is doubling down on its support of its renowned, embattled board member. Tina Tchen, Time’s Up president and CEO, released a statement Wednesday defending Choo.
“Perhaps the easy thing to do when difficult cases arise is to walk away from anyone who has had anything to do with a troubled institution or a difficult set of facts,” Tchen wrote. “But to do so is to walk away from the very people inside troubled institutions who are doing the hard work of confronting power, even in complicated and challenging situations. It will ultimately weaken our movements’s ability to realize the change we seek.”
“We cannot let women bear the brunt of his wrongdoing,” Tchen said of Campbell. “HE is the perpetrator and the abuser.”
Another co-founder of Time’s Up Healthcare, Laura Stadum, who works at Oregon Health and Science University’s Title IX coordinator, was also named in the lawsuit and accused of violating the school’s Title IX policy. (She is not a defendant.) A spokesperson for Time’s Up told VICE News, over email, that Stadum has not been active in Time’s Up Healthcare—a Time’s Up offshoot that aims to curb sexual harassment and gender discrimination among healthcare workers—since its launch three years ago and that they don’t know who her lawyer is.
Tchen’s statement rang hollow for Monica McLemore, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing and a co-founder of Time’s Up Healthcare.
“Tina’s statement was trash,” said McLemore, who is one of many who have resigned from the group over the last week. “I am so frustrated by the fact that it is indicative of the larger problem I was trying to illuminate.”
McLemore had no idea the lawsuit existed until last Sunday, after new outlets started reporting on it. After she got over her initial shock, she’d hoped that the suit—regardless of whether the accusations were true—could create an opportunity for Time’s Up to model how to graciously respond to these kinds of allegations, emphasize survivors’ needs, and spark conversations about the larger conditions that enable workplace abuse and how to fix them. For her, that’s the type of change that Time’s Up and Time’s Up Healthcare were founded to enact.
“Can we have deeper or more nuanced conversations about these issues, about the structures that contributed to a lone survivor having to resort to the law to get their needs met?” McLemore said. “I thought that the organization was going to be a convenor and a curator of that space. Obviously, I was wrong.”
The revelation of the lawsuit kicked off a series of meetings that, ultimately, left McLemore unconvinced that Time’s Up Healthcare would do the right thing. Last Tuesday, several co-founders—who represent some of the leading thinkers on gender equity and healthcare in the U.S.—met remotely with Time’s Up leadership, including Kaplan and Tchen.
It was a jarring and upsetting experience, according to four sources with knowledge of the situation. Kaplan and Tchen shut down any notion that Choo would step away, even temporarily, from Time’s Up Healthcare. Tchen insisted that the co-founders should defend Choo because they were all “sisters.”
Time’s Up leadership also insinuated that the only reason Choo was included in the lawsuit was because she’s a high-profile woman, four sources told VICE News. Tchen made a suggestion that she would later reiterate, in slightly different terms, in her statement: If everyone stepped back whenever they were accused of wrongdoing, there would be no one left.
It was a claim that, to people with knowledge of the situation, recalls the countless justifications given by powerful men accused of sexual harassment—and the kind of excuse that Time’s Up was intended to challenge.
“Time’s Up fully supports the survivor's right to be heard in this case and her seeking civil claims,” a Time’s Up spokesperson told VICE News. “Nothing should detract from the focus that should be placed on the well-being of the survivor and holding the perpetrator and the defendants in the case, accountable.”
In response to other questions for this story, the spokesperson pointed VICE News to Tchen’s Wednesday statement.
After this story was published, Kaplan told VICE News in a statement that Choo is “one of the kindest people I know.”
“The record is clear she did everything she could to support the plaintiff, while at the same time respecting her friend’s agency about how to report what had happened,” she went on. “The attacks on Dr. Choo are not only unfair but also destructive because they shift the focus away from the assailant and the institutions that still allow such behaviors to happen.”
The facts of the case itself are in question. In her lawsuit, the coworker said that, starting in January 2020, Campbell sent her sexually charged messages and pornographic photos. Once, he allegedly snuck up behind the coworker and “pushed his body and his erection forcibly” into her backside, according to the lawsuit. (An attorney for Campbell didn’t immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment. Campbell no longer works for Oregon Health and Science University, according to the lawsuit.)
In late March, the coworker told Choo that she’d been harassed by Campbell, according to the lawsuit. She allegedly included screenshots. Choo’s response, according to the lawsuit: “Ugh, I’m giving him feedback.”
The lawsuit alleges that the coworker later told Choo that Campbell had allegedly also harassed and assaulted another employee, but said that employee was afraid of reporting it. “It’s never worth it. Never,” Choo allegedly texted the coworker.
But in a legal filing Wednesday, Oregon Health and Science University said that, rather than telling the alleged victim to keep quiet, Choo had encouraged her to report Campbell and offered to meet with Campbell herself. A spokesperson for Choo has previously said that she will produce “documentary evidence” to counter the claims in the lawsuit.
In its filing, Oregon Health and Science University also said that Stadum had “promptly, thoroughly, and fairly investigated all complaints of sexual harassment.” The school asked for a court order to stop the other side’s lawyers from continuing to attack Choo and other potential witnesses on social media.
Danny Jacobs, the president of Oregon Health and Science University, didn’t directly address the accuracy of the lawsuit in a statement Wednesday. Instead, Jacobs committed to a review of the school’s policies and practices in order to root out discrimination and harassment. It was an example of what McLemore, who was not in the Tuesday meeting, had once hoped to see from Time’s Up Healthcare.
“The legal matters will be addressed in the court of law, but there must also be keen and intentional action taken on sexual harassment and discrimination in our community,” Jacobs said. “We will identify the cultural and subcultural changes that must occur at OHSU to establish a community that is safe and trauma-informed.”
In their resignations, many of which have been shared on Twitter, several former co-founders of Time’s Up Healthcare pinned their decision to leave on the organization’s inability to focus on and support survivors.
“Last week ended up just being damage control and putting out fires,” said Lynn Fiellin, a professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine who resigned from Time’s Up Healthcare last week. Fiellin was not in the meeting Tuesday and spoke with VICE News ahead of Tchen’s Wednesday statement. “It was all focused on Time’s Up, Time’s Up Healthcare, Esther.”
On Thursday, Fiellin had dinner with her adult daughter. When Fiellin told her what had happened over the last week, her daughter told her, “Wow, I’m so disappointed.”
“I went to sleep on that, and I realized, ‘Wow, I am so disappointed too.’ If anything, if I’m gonna be a model for this young woman, I have to do something that feels right,” she said. “The next morning, I woke up, and I was like, “I just can’t.’”