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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Campus sexual assault stories have two sides

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on September 5, 2014 in New York City. The protest is also doubling as her senior thesis project. Credit: Getty Images/ Andrew Burton

The saga of Columbia University "mattress girl" Emma Sulkowicz -- the young woman who became world-famous for carrying a mattress on campus to protest the school's non-punishment of the fellow student she accuses of rape -- took a new turn last week when the accused sued the university. The federal lawsuit filed by Paul Nungesser claims that, by enabling Sulkowicz's activism, Columbia has permitted a campaign of gender-based harassment that has deprived him of educational opportunities.

The brief contains a detailed account of Nungesser's side of the story; it also raises startling new questions about Sulkowicz's truthfulness. (For instance, the complaint notes that when Sulkowicz publicly asserted she was terrified of encountering Nungesser on campus, he was studying abroad, which she acknowledged in another statement.) Nungesser's suit also raises tough questions about a range of academic issues -- from universities' obligations to students accused of wrongdoing to the limits of free speech.

In 2013, Nungesser was cleared of disciplinary charges of sexual misconduct. Sulkowicz responded with a media campaign -- culminating in her internationally celebrated "Carry That Weight" project -- that made Nungesser a campus pariah. He was ostracized by classmates, dropped from extracurricular activities, and targeted via social-media threats.

Drawing the line between legitimate speech and harassment in such cases can be difficult. Two years ago, University of North Carolina student Landen Gambill was disciplined for "disruptive or intimidating behavior" for airing her grievance after a campus panel exonerated the ex-boyfriend she accused of abuse. The sanctions were later dropped; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which often defends the accused in campus sexual-assault cases, supported Gambill on free speech grounds.

But regardless of the merits of that case, there are important differences. Unlike Gambill, Sulkowicz took deliberate action to publicize Nungesser's name (despite Columbia policies that urge everyone involved in sexual misconduct cases to respect the parties' confidentiality). What's more, her activism personally targeted Nungesser; she said she would carry the mattress as a symbol of her victimization until either she graduated or Nungesser left the school. Both students are set to graduate next month.

The suit claims that the university essentially endorsed Sulkowicz's mattress protest in a number of ways: by allowing her to perform it as a visual art project for college credit; by letting her take the mattress into the library and other buildings against the rules; and by not charging two campus groups for cleanup after a protest that denounced Nungesser as a "serial rapist."

The complaint also names Columbia professor Jon Kessler, who supervised Sulkowicz's "art" project, and university president Lee Bollinger. Bollinger has expressed sympathy for Sulkowicz, on one occasion saying it was "very painful" that a Columbia student "feels that she has been a victim of mistreatment." Yet he has not expressed concern about another student who feels mistreated despite complying with the rules and going through a process that exonerated him. Nor, despite pleas from Nungesser's parents, did Bollinger affirm the integrity of the university's disciplinary process and stand by its results.

Nungesser's lawsuit is one in a series of complaints by male students who allege gender discrimination after facing charges of campus sexual misconduct. Such suits have had a mixed record in the courts. This case could be a watershed, making the other side of campus injustice a national story.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.


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