Columbia sued for failing to protect alleged rapist from “harassment”

The student accused of rape by Emma Sulkowicz is suing Columbia University, claiming that the school failed to protect him from “severe, pervasive … and threatening behavior by other Columbia students.” The AP reports:

In his lawsuit, Nungesser said a Columbia-owned website had presented as fact that he sexually assaulted Sulkowicz, a senior majoring in visual arts. It said that the school allowed Sulkowicz to carry a mattress into classes, the library and campus-provided transportation as part of her senior thesis, that Kessler approved the “Mattress Project” for her course credit and that Sulkowicz’s pledge to carry her mattress to graduation may prevent Nungesser and his parents, who’d like to fly from Germany, from participating in graduation ceremonies.

“Day-to-day life is unbearably stressful, as Emma and her mattress parade around campus each and every day,” the suit said.

Paul Nungesser says that Sulkowicz’s claim that he is a serial rapist has led to abuse and harassment by other Columbia students, and that in supporting her “Carry That Weight” project, the University effectively sponsored gender-based harassment and allowed the creation of  “an intimidating, hostile, demeaning … learning and living environment.” He also claims that his daily life on campus is “unbearably stressful” and that his employment prospects have been jeopardized by the media coverage of Sulkowicz’s project.

Sulkowicz is having none of it. She told the AP:

I think it’s ridiculous that Paul would sue not only the school but one of my past professors for allowing me to make an art piece. It’s ridiculous that he would read it as a “bullying strategy,'”especially given his continued public attempts to smear my reputation, when really it’s just an artistic expression of the personal trauma I’ve experienced at Columbia. If artists are not allowed to make art that reflect on our experiences, then how are we to heal?”

This case confirms a troubling reality: after a few years of moving towards taking campus rape seriously, we have now clearly arrived at the backlash. Now that we — kind of — take sexual violence seriously as a culture, we’ve also realized that being accused of sexual violence is a terrible thing, something that can wreck the reputations of even privileged college students. Concern about the rights of the accused is justified, of course, and few people are more aware of that than those who want to make sure that rape is taken seriously. Student activist groups, including Know Your IX, Carry That Weight, and No Red Tape, have published an open letter to university presidents demanding fair process for all students. As Alexandra has written, “The false dichotomy between care for survivors and care for the accused’s rights does a disservice to the policy debate and all those involved.”

All that said, we still live in a culture that has been and continues to be far more concerned with protecting rapists and accused rapists than about taking care of their victims. And now, that concern has yet again lawyered up. Nungesser is the latest in a long line of students who have filed suit after being accused of sexual violence. Just this week, New York courts dismissed cases brought by men who were expelled or suspended from Columbia and Vassar after being found guilty of sexual assault. The judge in the Columbia case called these kinds of suits “a growing phenomenon.” Nungesser’s case is a little unusual, in that he was found not guilty by Columbia’s internal procedures — which, of course, is why Sulkowicz launched her project in the first place.

Still, my guess is that this kind of case will become a growing phenomenon, too. The backlash is here, and it has lawyers, and things are going to get real ugly. 

Header image credit: Getty

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Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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