When Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began carrying a dorm mattress around campus last September, as both her senior art thesis and a form of protest against the way the school handled her rape claim, she couldn’t have known quite how viral her story would go. Within two weeks, reporters were surrounding her on campus; media in 35 countries covered her and her project, titled “Mattress Performance, or Carry That Weight”; and in January of this year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand invited Sulkowicz to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address as her guest.
Throughout this all, the proverbial elephant in the room has been Paul Nungesser, the fellow Columbia student who Sulkowicz says raped her but who was cleared in a school adjudication process. Although Nungesser wasn’t named at first, people on campus knew he was the accused, and in December he spoke publicly to the New York Times. That was followed by an extensive piece in the Daily Beast detailing his claims of innocence. Now, Nungesser has filed a lawsuit against Columbia, its board of trustees, Columbia President Lee Bollinger, and art professor Jon Kessler, the AP reports.
According to the full complaint, which Jezebel has obtained and posted online, the lawsuit:
is an action for damages, injunctive relief and declaratory relief against [the defendants] … for their acts and omissions with regard to Paul Nungesser in violation of both federal and state law which have significantly damaged, if not effectively destroyed Paul Nungesser’s college experience, his reputation, his emotional well-being and his future career prospects. 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 of 1972 …
Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, has historically been used to protect the rights of women. In both that passage and the language throughout, the 56-page complaint reads like an effort to rewrite the Sulkowicz story with Nungesser as the central victim. It goes on to allege that Columbia University “knew about the harassment from the beginning, and had the power, as well as the legal and contractual obligation, to protect” Nungesser. Columbia “first became a silent bystander and then turned into an active supporter of a fellow student’s harassment campaign by institutionalizing and heralding it.”
As evidence, the complaint cites the school’s support of the project, including a Columbia-owned website that reproduces Sulkowicz’s assault claim as fact and Bollinger’s personal response to the project. It also reserves special criticism for Kessler, stating that the artist and professor “reignited” Sulkowicz’s “efforts to wreak havoc on Paul’s life.” Kessler “guided Emma in developing the Mattress Project, knowing that her piece was targeted at a fellow Columbia student” — and here the cited evidence is in fact a comment from Kessler published in a previous Hyperallergic story — and “publicly endorsed her harassment and defamation of Paul.”
“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 complaint says.
Sulkowicz is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit — “Emma Sulkowicz is merely a footnote to this story,” Nungesser’s lawyer told Jezebel — but she did write to the Times, saying, “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.” Hyperallergic reached out to Kessler, who declined to comment. Columbia has offered no comment to the AP or the New York Times.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.