Exposing Rank Injustice in the Columbia ‘Mattress Girl’ Case
March 18, 2016
The saga of Columbia University’s “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz, who famously carried a mattress on campus to protest the non-expulsion of her alleged rapist, and Paul Nungesser, the accused man who says he is the real victim, is not quite over a year after both graduated.
Last week, a federal district judge threw out Nungesser’s Title IX lawsuit against Columbia, which charges that the school abetted his gender-based harassment by Sulkowicz. But attorney Andrew Miltenberg vows to continue to “pursue justice” for Nungesser, by filing either an appeal or an amended complaint.
Having reported on this story, I hope the lawsuit goes forward — not only on Nungesser’s behalf, but for the sake of truth-seeking about a tangled case that raises important issues.
Nungesser is one of over 100 men who have sued colleges and universities for what they allege is unfair treatment in the handling of sexual-assault accusations. Many of these lawsuits have been dismissed, others settled.
Nungesser’s case is more of an uphill battle than most, since he wasn’t expelled or even suspended, but cleared of the charges. Even so, he says his academic experience was irreparably damaged as Sulkowicz’s activism — particularly her mattress protest, approved as her senior “art project” by a Columbia professor also named in the suit — publicly branded him a rapist.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Judge Gregory Woods noted that Title IX “sets a high bar” for damages: The plaintiff must show he or she was “effectively deprived of . . . educational opportunities,” but Nungesser got his diploma from Columbia without delay and his grades did not suffer. (Loss of access to extracurriculars and job recruitment was deemed insufficient.)
Imagine the feminist outrage if such an argument quashed a complaint by a female student alleging that a school mishandled her report of sexual assault: The court would no doubt be accused of punishing survivors for resilience.
Woods’s opinion also sets a high bar for showing sex discrimination. He reasons that even if, as Nungesser asserts, Sulkowicz made a false accusation of rape as revenge for rejection, this cannot be classed as “gender-based” harassment since she was targeting Nungesser as an individual, not due to his maleness.
Yet by the same reasoning, sexual assault or sexual harassment should not be seen as “gender-based” offenses since they are directed at specific individuals.
If, as feminists claim, female victims of sexual violence are assaulted because they are women, one can surely argue that falsely accused men are accused because they are male — particularly when the rhetoric around campus sexual assault almost invariably singles out men as the perpetrators.
Was Nungesser falsely accused? No one can know for sure what happened between him and Sulkowicz. We do know that on the day after what she alleges was a brutal attack, the two exchanged flirtatious, chatty Facebook messages (as I first reported in The Daily Beast) and bantered about her bringing other female students to his party.
That most feminists’ response to these revelations was to defend Sulkowicz and her credibility as a “survivor” says far more about their presumption of guilt than it does about her claims.
Early reports seemed damning to Nungesser, since two other female students had also accused him of sexual assault. Later it became clear the complaints were connected.
One of the women, Nungesser’s ex-girlfriend, who was battling mental-health issues, came forward after she and Sulkowicz discussed their experiences with Nungesser. The other, a fellow resident at a coed frat house who accused him of a drunken pass at a party, filed a complaint after hearing about his alleged assault on Sulkowicz (with encouragement from a friend who was trying to get him evicted from the house).
Much later, with Sulkowicz already in the news, a male house resident also accused Nungesser of groping him. I obtained Columbia’s internal report on this complaint, which concluded that it lacked all credibility and hinted that it was part of a collective vendetta.
That the university’s “shadow courts” completely exonerated Nungesser on four different charges, despite a process stacked against the accused, is a strong point in his favor. Yet he was still heavily penalized in the court of public opinion, due partly to biased journalism, partly to activist zealotry amplified by irresponsible politicians such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
The blame also rests with Columbia officials who wouldn’t even publicly affirm, despite repeated pleas from Nungesser’s parents, that they stood by his vindication.
A lawsuit that more fully airs these facts and issues may help us return to a saner campus climate — not only at Columbia, but throughout the nation.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine.