Since The Sound of Freedom was released in theaters last week, the inspiration for the film, Tim Ballard, the CEO of the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), has been getting quite a bit of attention — and not all of it has been positive. The film, which has grossed nearly $50 million, has been subject to criticism from anti-trafficking experts, many of whom claim it is an inaccurate depiction of child trafficking and that the tactics espoused in the film may actually put trafficked kids in danger. Others have focused on Operation Underground Railroad and Ballard himself, particularly his tendency to self-mythologize and embellish his exploits and his more recent pivot toward conspiracy theories.
Ballard, however, is no longer associated with Operation Underground Railroad — that is, according to Motherboard, which has been reporting on the organization for years. According to sources close to the organization, and a statement from O.U.R. provided to Motherboard and Rolling Stone, Ballard left the group just prior to the debut of Sound of Freedom, something he has not mentioned on his extensive press tour promoting the film. Though Ballard is still prominently featured on the website for O.U.R. and cited as a founder, O.U.R. said in its statement that Matt Osborne is its president and COO.
While the circumstances around Ballard’s departure are somewhat unclear, his LinkedIn profile states that he is the CEO of the Nazarene Fund, O.U.R.’s sister organization which serves Christians and other religious minorities fleeing persecution in the Middle East.
In a recent appearance on Fox News, he also was identified as the founder of an organization called the SPEAR Fund, which “relies on experts in the field of anti trafficking to consult on its many projects,” according to a description on its website. Through O.U.R., Ballad helped to bring in tens of millions of dollars to put towards further developing its branding as the leading authority on sex trafficking.
“What they are learning is so divorced from reality that it does sling back to create harm,” Erin Albright, an attorney who has worked in the anti-trafficking space for 15 years, recently told Rolling Stone about the dangerous narratives perpetuated by the film. “It creates harm when certain policies aren’t passed because we think trafficking looks one way and it’s another way. It creates harm when victims don’t recognize themselves in these narratives.”
Angel Studios, which distributed Sound of Freedom, published a blog post on its website acknowledging that some of Ballard’s biographical details were altered and that the film “took creative liberties in depicting the different methods of child trafficking.”
Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children’s Alliance, added that such an action was largely unnecessary given the grim reality of the topic. “You don’t have to manufacture conspiracy theories about child sexual abuse,” she stated. “There are plenty of facts at hand that dont involve spreading horrible rumors about Wayfair or pizza restaurants.”
July 13, 4:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to include that O.U.R. confirmed Ballard’s departure to Rolling Stone.