A Columbia University student is suing the school for defamation, claiming that it aided and abetted a harassment campaign carried out by a female student he says falsely accused him of rape.
Paul Nungesser claims that the school, its board, its president and a Columbia professor effectively supported an “intimidating, hostile, demeaning” campus atmosphere by allowing Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia senior, to carry a 50-pound mattress on her back around the school as part of a senior project last fall.
Sulkowicz’s project, entitled “Carry that Weight,” was meant to draw attention to her alleged sexual assault by Nungesser — which she says occurred on Aug. 27, 2012 — and the school’s failure to properly investigate it.
Sulkowicz’s project gained national attention. She was interviewed by numerous media outlets and was invited to attend the State of the Union address by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Though neither Sulkowicz nor the school publicly named Nungesser, it became clear around campus that he was the student in question. He was shunned by friends and fellow students and that his job prospects “are suffering immensely,” the lawsuit states, according to the Associated Press.
“Day-to-day life is unbearably stressful, as Emma and her mattress parade around campus each and every day,” reads the suit, which was filed in New York on Thursday.
Nungesser “has been subjected to severe, pervasive…and threatening behavior by other Columbia students, believing that Paul is a ‘serial rapist,’ whenever Paul has appeared at university activities,” continues the complaint.
Nungesser steadfastly maintains that he did not rape Sulkowicz.
Sulkowicz claimed that during their Aug. 2012, encounter, she and Nungesser began by having consensual sex, which they had done twice before. But she said that that encounter turned violent, and that Nungesser choked and slapped her and had rough sex with her against her will.
Sulkowicz did not immediately report the rape. She waited until the following spring semester to tell school officials about the attack. Nungesser claimed that that gap, along with the lack of evidence showing a violent assault, showed that he was innocent.
After an investigation and a campus tribunal, the school cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing. Two other women filed complaints after Sulkowicz filed hers. One was Nungesser’s ex-girlfriend, who said that Nungesser had abused her during their relationship. The other was the member of a campus organization whose president had tried to get Nungesser kicked out of the organization. She said that Nungesser grabbed her after a party and tried to kiss her against her will. Columbia cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing in those cases as well.
The failure to punish Nungesser sparked Sulkowicz’s mattress project. She has said she plans to carry it with her on stage during this spring’s graduation.
But after Sulkowicz’s campaign gained widespread attention, Nungesser went public with information he says undermines her claims.
In February, he told Cathy Young for an article at The Daily Beast that Sulkowicz engaged in friendly conversations with him in the days and weeks following the alleged incident.
In one exchange on Facebook just two days after the alleged rape, Sulkowicz wrote to Nungesser, “Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz.”
She also wrote: “because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr.”
And on Sept. 9, Sulkowicz initiated a conversation on Facebook, writing “whatever I want to see yoyououoyou” and “respond – I’ll get the message on ma phone.”
Young also presented evidence that the Nungesser’s other two accusers did not come forward out of the clear blue. Nungesser’s ex-girlfriend came forward only after a conversation with Sulkowicz. The other student had also exchanged friendly messages with Nungesser after she claimed he tried to forcefully kiss her.
In his lawsuit, Nungesser accuses the school of tacitly supporting Sulkowicz’s accusations against him by allowing her to haul the mattress around the school. The complaint also cites the university’s references to the case on its website.
Columbia University declined to comment on Nungesser’s lawsuit, according to the Associated Press.
Sulkowicz responded, telling the AP, “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.”
“It’s ridiculous that he would read it as a ‘bullying strategy,’ especially given his continued public attempts to smear my reputation, when really it’s just an artistic expression of the personal trauma I’ve experienced at Columbia. If artists are not allowed to make art that reflect on our experiences, then how are we to heal?”