Student Sues Columbia Over Emma Sulkowicz's Thesis

The young man accused of sexually assaulting Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has filed a federal lawsuit against the university, alleging that the administration allowed his name and character to be smeared even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing. The hefty lawsuit names Columbia, the university's board of trustees, university President Lee Bollinger, and visual arts Professor Jon Kessler as defendants; Sulkowicz is not being sued.

In the Title IX lawsuit, Columbia senior Paul Nungesser claims the university "damaged, if not destroyed" his college experience, citing Sulkowicz and her performance art piece, which became a national symbol for the on-campus rape epidemic, as the instigators. In the fall of 2014, Sulkowicz, an art student, began carrying her dorm mattress around campus as her senior thesis project. Titled "Carry that Weight," the project was meant to symbolize the burden that has been placed on Sulkowicz since the night Nungesser, a former friend, allegedly assaulted her. The art student had said that she would carry her mattress to and from every class on the historic Morningside Heights campus until the administration removed Nungesser from the university.

But that never happened. Nungesser, who was also accused of sexually assaulting two other female students, was cleared by the administration. Initially, Sulkowicz never filed a criminal police report against Nungesser, nor did she undergo rape-kit testing, having said in previous interviews that getting authorities involved would have been too emotionally taxing. She later went to the NYPD, nearly two years after the alleged assault occurred, but no criminal charges were brought against Nungesser.

Now, after months of seeing Sulkowicz carry her navy blue mattress around campus — oftentimes with the help of friends of Good Samaritan classmates — and attending high-profile events such as the 2015 State of the Union address, Nungesser alleges his name, character and life has been ruined. (To be sure: Sulkowicz never named Nungesser in interviews or during her performance art piece. Nungesser publicly came forward to The New York Times last fall, then participated in subsequent media interviews with outlets such as the Daily Beast.) He is looking for damages, injunctive relief and declaratory relief from the Ivy League university.

"This case exemplifies the types of student-on-student and teacher-on-student gender based harassment and misconduct that the Supreme Court has held is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments," the lawsuit alleges. It labels Nungesser a "victim of harassment" and calls Columbia University "a silent bystander."

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The lawsuit contends that Sulkowicz's "Carry that Weight" was not so much a performance art piece but a bullying campaign targeted directly at Nungesser, who "thrived" at the Ivy League institution before being hit with accusations of rape and sexual assault. But the lawsuit takes a strange turn, including a long series of Facebook messages between Sulkowicz and Nungesser in order to seemingly paint Sulkowicz as a spurned lover who "cries rape" to get back at a man.

"Emma’s Efforts For Affection From Paul Go Unreciprocated" reads one section of the lawsuit, attempting to illustrate that Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of sexual assault because she wanted to be more than just "friends with benefits." The lawsuit claims:

As is evident from Emma’s Facebook messages to Paul during the summer prior to their sophomore year, Emma’s yearning for Paul had become very intense. Emma repeatedly messaged Paul throughout that summer that she loved and missed him. She was quick to inquire whether he was in love with the woman he was seeing abroad.

Thereafter, she continued pursuing him, reiterating that she loved him. However, when Paul did not reciprocate these intense feelings, and instead showed interest in dating other women, Emma became viciously angry.

The lawsuit also features Facebook messages, believed to be sent months before the alleged rape occurred, showing Sulkowicz and Nungesser discuss anal sex (Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of anally penetrating her). Other messages include intimate details about Sulkowicz's sex and party life, perhaps as an attempt to depict her as "promiscuous" or a "party girl."

And that spurned lover theme continues throughout. "In an effort to bolster her ease, and driven by her feelings of rejection and interest in making a public impact and statement, Emma approached several women with whom she was friendly, encouraging them to each report Paul to the University for sexual misconduct," the lawsuit alleges.

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"Emma’s efforts to brand Paul a 'serial rapist' had begun during the Emma Investigation conducted by Columbia [in fall 2013]," the lawsuit continues. "Since then, those efforts have intensified."

Nungesser and his lawyers claim Columbia administrators failed to protect him, and instead bowed to Sulkowicz and student activists. Nungesser also accuses Professor Jon Kessler of enabling Sulkowicz by approving her thesis art project:

Professor Kessler directed Emma to transform her personal vendetta against Paul into a Columbia-sponsored calumny. Under the guise of "performance art," Professor Kessler and Emma jointly designed her senior thesis project (the "Mattress Project"). ... Columbia Professor Kessler not only approved Emma’s Mattress Project for course credit, but also publicly endorsed her harassment and defamation of Paul.

In an email to The New York Times, Sulkowicz responded to the lawsuit by defending her art project as "an artistic expression of the personal trauma I’ve experienced at Columbia." The college senior added: "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."

Columbia University and its president, Lee Bollinger, have declined to publicly comment on the lawsuit at this time.

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