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Emma Sulkowicz discussing her project with New York Times art critic Roberta Smith at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Raíssa Paes/Instagram)

Emma Sulkowicz discussing her project with New York Times art critic Roberta Smith at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Raíssa Paes/Instagram)

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.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

47 replies on “Student Accused of Rape by Mattress-Carrying Artist Sues Columbia University”

      1. That’s not a fair claim.

        Rape is an extremely serious allegation and shouldn’t be taken lightly, the level of uncertainty is troubling for me. Why on earth would the NYPD or Columbia or even her not push for justice? She clearly wasn’t bothered by the attention it brough her (she seems to have sought it out) and has spoken about the occurance to media outlets so it seems like the ‘invasive’ nature of a trial isn’t problematic.

        If I walked around accusing other people or rape or other serious crimes and never following up my claims in court people would label me a pathological liar. They would probably sue if they thought it was worth their while, proving a claim like that is difficult and damages as a result are what 3x…

        Personally the art piece itself is brilliant but I have serious reservations about the artist.

        1. I believe she did accuse him and it was dealt with in-college, but the college’s treatment of the case and finding for the accused is what incensed the accuser. It ought to have been dealt with by the Justice system and not the college.

          1. You’re incorrect, it was dealt with by the justice system. She attempted at Columbia and then with the NY DA: http://columbiaspectator.com/news/2014/05/16/frustrated-columbias-inaction-student-reports-sexual-assault-police

            There are a slew of problems, it would have been much easier at Columbia to ‘prove’ rape, failing there means something is inherently wrong with the case. Dealing with the NY DA, she needs something tangible that goes beyond reasonable doubt. Her history is troubling, she waited months before reporting it, she consented to sex several times including but not limited to the day of the alleged rape (to the rapist!). She was very intoxicated/drugged that would leave her own testimony unreliable. Then of course there are the back and forth emails and text messages where she continued to get in touch with the alleged rapist where she asks to “snuggle” and asks to have sex.

            It certainly says something when a case that generated as much attention as hers is not pursued legally.

  1. shows what kind of misguided fucking asshole he really is. what a hilarious irony that he is suing the school. i hope he rots in hell forever.

    1. Sadly, it’s not irony. It’s vindictiveness and the taking of any advantage. I’ve seen a lot of assaulters play the victim, often painting those they assaulted as the perpetrator of a crime.

      1. Well from the number of people who have come out of the woodwork to accuse him, he’s not your typical perpetrator. Unapologetic. It’s weird because he’s not even American… he has another country to go back to. He’s into the fight, I guess.

    2. Or maybe he never raped her and has been wronged by this campaign. He was cleared by the school and is not being brought up on criminal charges. Last time I checked we had a policy of innocent until proven guilty in this country and to automatically assume he is guilty without evidence stands in direct conflict with that legal tradition.

      1. Yeah… That’s the problem with institutions clearing people of wrongdoing without trial. It foments distrust. You can see the same problem with the current discussion of how cops always get cleared of wrongdoing when they kill unarmed citizens.
        Until there is a genuine effort to take these contentious issues seriously, we will see many more ‘trials by internet.” It’s wrong– but it’s inevitable.

        1. That’s totally right, and I’ll admit to being a complete hypocrite in those situations. I automatically assume a cop is guilty when they are accused of wrongdoing by a citizen and I tend not to believe that an innocent verdict means the cop didn’t do it, I see them as more evidence of the blue wall of silence. That process, just like the process of distrusting rape victims has made it very hard to trust the system.
          I’m not saying he’s innocent, just that the assumption above that he’s a monster who deserves to rot in hell forever is unfounded

          1. Exactly, that blue wall of silence. I’m hyper sensitive to it too– because when cops abuse their power it’s kind of extra terrible for us all.
            I’m not saying he’s a monster that deserves to rot in hell. I’m just saying that women who have been raped have a very difficult time being heard or seeing justice. And that’s going to color perceptions quite a lot. Until we develop some actual trial standards that don’t allow defense lawyers to vilify the accuser as a defense tactic, we will see these kinds of public discussions instead.

      2. Yeah, our nation also has an unwritten policy of blaming and doubting rape victims. The fact that the school cleared him and the cops won’t prosecute says nothing to the question of whether he is actually a rapist or not.

        Also, that is, as you say, a LEGAL tradition. Meaning it only has to apply in terms of the law.

        1. I’m not saying he did or didn’t do it, that’s probably not something we’ll every know for sure. I was commenting on the assumption from “to the power of” that he’s a monster who deserves to root in he’ll forever.
          His suit against the school is legally sound because of their actions. They cleared him implying they don’t think he’s guilty, and then supported a project that clearly affects him negatively. That’s slanderous due to their previous proclamation that he’s not guilty.

          1. well… not really. although THEY cleared him, SHE never did. She has the right to free speech. And she has the right to say that she disagrees with the way the school decided something that affected her so profoundly.

            The fact that everybody knows who he is is kind of a side issue… I’m thinking. Of course not to him, but if I were a lawyer that might be something I’d point out.

          2. I totally agree, she has the right to do whatever she wants. She hasn’t wavered from her accusations and is adamantly pushing them which is her right. That’s why he isn’t naming her in his suit.
            It’s the school that is committing slander by clearing him through their admittedly messed up process and then publicly supporting the speech against him. They can’t have it both ways. Either they support her in her accusations and actually punish him as a rapist or they clear him and give up their ability to support her accusations. The entire point of my comments was that we shouldn’t automatically assume that he’s a monster, and the school is not behaving in a legally consistent manner which opens them up to law suits.

  2. Yes let his entitlement expose himself in public in court for the world to see. I wonder how his lawyer is going to argue that her art project was harassment since it never named him, and was directed at the college. And why, if he’s being harassed, is he sueing the school and not his harasser? Lol cause it probably didn’t meet the legal definition.

  3. Looks to me this is a fair suit if this person felt harassed…But two things 1) a legal suit will only make his name and the artist’s project more notorious… Looks like it made an itch were it should. And 2) suing because a school and an art teacher is encouraging the students to make art? She worked her project the way she wanted and nobody can censor that. It shows how powerful art can be.

    Update: went to read about this case online… It looks much difficult than it seems for them were friends and kinda dating… Apparently the guy likes it rough… Does that make it rape? Very touchy subject. If she likes is good sex but if she doesn’t is rape?

    Update 2: Read the whole lawsuit that Mr. Nungesser has filed… in which states Facebook conversations and the nature of the relationship, and the fact he started dating another girl … if all it is said is true, then the school did little to protect him and a lot to support Sulkowicz project which I personally find it a great work…

    Why he is not suing her of slander?

    Anyway… looks we never gonna find out what really happened, no medical exam after alleged rape, no police filing, it all makes it hard…

    1. “Apparently the guy likes it rough… Does that make it rape? Very touchy subject. If she likes is good sex but if she doesn’t is rape?”

      Yes, if she doesn’t like the rough sex he is into, and he has it with her, anyway, it’s rape.

      In the S&M community, where rough is part of the game, there are very clear communication up front as to what (and by how much) is acceptable.

      “Read the whole lawsuit that Mr. Nungesser has filed…if all it is said is true, then…”
      Keep in mind that it’s his filing. He’s going to come out strong, batting hard, throw everything at the wall and hope enough sticks.

      Oh, and I bet he can’t sue her for slander without things coming out in court that he might not want. The defence against slander is the truth.
      I mean, otherwise, why wouldn’t he?

      It is a shame about the lack of rape kit and timely reporting.

    2. Because if he sued her that would make questions of whether or not he actually raped her far more front and center.

      1. That’s been front and center for a loooooong time, lol. You obviously aren’t bored of it yet.

  4. Sadly, this is not at all surprising. He feels entitled to that money just like he felt entitled to rape that woman in the first place.

  5. Wow… it says so much that the woman he is accused of raping and who started this whole thing is considered by him/his council to be “merely a foot note”.

    I think a more accurate reading of it might be that he doesn’t want to stir up the hornet’s nest that trying to sue the woman he is accused of raping for basically saying that he raped her.

    1. I think he just wants to be done with her and is also afraid of her. Also they’re both students so it wouldn’t stick, remember read about the case more.

  6. With all the false rape claims over the past couple of decades, skepticism is a natural outcome to claims that receive extreme publicity. After forty years in business, it is also clear that sexual harassment occurs when the accused is unattractive or uninterested and not so much when otherwise. As a woman, I urge other women to apply the same standards to themselves that they apply to others. Plus, the thesis, even for an arts degree, is ridiculous and puerile. Academia is as lazy as are the students.

    1. Rape defenders are like climate change deniers. One could argue with you with statistics but then you’ll pull something out of your ass by a bunch of private bloggers and the National Review. I will end here for you.

        1. But try though you might question “left wing” “scripture,” the point is you’re not convincing us. Nor people on the fence unless they are in red states. Some of us have deigned to talk to actual rape victims, and while you might focus on the one or two supposed Girls That Cry Wolf, you’d argue against that experience too, saying that would make us “biased,” lol. Your clinging on to terrible male role models and ideals is sad and the way of the past. At least you sign your posts (if that’s your real name), which alot of right-wingers on the issue won’t because alot of them are young and inexperienced. Clearly you are not, however wrong on the issue:)

  7. what is it about our culture that makes people in situations like this want to stay in the public eye?

    guilty or innocent, it would make more sense if he just laid low, and rode this out for another year or two. by then, nobody would give a fuck who he is and he could go about his life. but now, he’s not only opening new wounds, but increasing the chance of his reputation truly being ruined for life now in these digitally permanent times.

  8. I can’t believe the posts here. Not one single person has any right to pass judgement on either of these situations. You spout your comments like some misguided bratty children. Not one single person has said anything rational that didn’t stem from some misguided personal view of how they want things to be rather than how they are. You are all trolls and shame on everyone for casting stones in a glass house.

    First, not all rape situations are the same. You all immediately judge that since there is a complaint then the accuser is in the right and the accused is guilty. How foolish. So you read a few headlines schools not supporting rape claims and now they all are guilty of supressing rape claims. Secondly, rape is mostly a he said she said argument. Unless physical evidence can be presented, how can you prove rape? How can a school protect both the accused and accusers rights? Maybe they were both drunk beyond caring, fucked, and now the accuser regrets it or was spurned the next morning? College environments are ripe with those situations. How do you pick out the credible rapes from the drunken nights of revelry with morning regret and perceived slandered reputations?

    With EVIDENCE, which none of these commenters possess, nor did this article present.

    I thank God we don’t live in a world where the court of public opinion rules. You are all selfish, self righteous, morons possessing little ability to read an article with any ability to comprehend.

    Now, take out the superfluous context and personal feelins about rape. I don’t know if this girl was raped or not. So far, I do know that no evidence exists publically proving her rape. I do know that private information illegally went public and then a person made a very public display targeting another person for the purpose of slander. The school has a duty to protect the wronged person’s identity in a private matter and any harm committed by others. Vindictive revenge is no more legal than rape, and unless you can PROVE guilt, then the school has a responsibility to protect the rights of all students.

    What I read here is a bunch of readers who would prefer witch hunts based on nothing but heresay.

  9. Emma Sulkowicz wasn’t raped by Paul Nungesser and the Facebook posts Emma made about Paul prove she wasn’t raped. Emma is a ‘woman scorned’. And Paul has received the full wrath of this lying woman scorned. Paul SHOULD sue everyone involved in this travesty. Scorned women like Emma distract from REAL issues of violence against women.

  10. Commenters who claim to be “open-minded” and non-judgmental are already on the defense. lol

    1. Who’s claimed to be open-minded on here, lol. How about people who haven’t read up on the ongoing drama?

  11. Sexual assault, on campuses and in society as a whole, is a VERY serious problem. False reports, lying, and smearing the names of non-guilty individuals who are accused only hurts the otherwise admirable goal of educating people about and fighting against rape and other crimes against women. Further, this type of self-promotion Sulkowicz has been able to maintain for quite a while, and her careless invocation of victimhood, only serves to dishonor and make a mockery of women who HAVE been on the receiving end of this type of vile crime. This student should be ashamed of herself and true feminists should have nothing to do with her.

  12. if you look at the details of the actual case (you can see it in the comments below) you’ll see that she had absolutely no case against him. What she’s doing is simple defamation at this point and he has every right to sue the school and as a lawyer I predict he will have an easy win. I know it’s hard to understand in light of her all-powerful media frenzy but that has nothing to do with who is actually breaking the law. Men are the victims of baseless rape/abuse cases frequently and destroying their image and ruining their life because you don’t have a case is not legal.

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