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July 17, 2017

Columbia Settles Lawsuit with Student Subject of Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Project

NEW YORK—Columbia University announced late last week that it has settled a lawsuit brought by Paul Nungesser, the student accused of rape in Emma Sulkowicz’s “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” for undisclosed terms, reports Kate Taylor for The New York Times. The lawsuit was first filed in April 2015, one month before Nungesser and Sulkowicz’s graduation, and accused Columbia University, its president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz’s thesis advisor and Columbia University School of Art professor Jon Kessler of violating Nungesser’s Title IX rights. In 2013, a university disciplinary panel cleared Nungesser of any wrongdoing.

The lawsuit had been dismissed twice before in Federal District Court. In March 2016, U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods wrote that ruling in Nungesser’s favor “would stretch Title IX too far, and could permit any students accused of sexual assault to sue their schools, so long as the schools knew of the allegations and failed to silence the accusers.”

Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 stipulates that students at schools receiving federal financial assistance cannot be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity based on their sex.

A spokesperson for Columbia said of the settlement that the school “recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience. Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student—accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible—is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.”

The settlement arrives as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos plans to overhaul Title IX rules, to the concern of advocates for victims of sexual assault. Secretary DeVos said Friday that the lives of students accused of sexual assault “have been ruined and lives are lost in the process,” but that “we can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug.”

Dana Bolger, the founder of Know Your IX, which seeks to end sexual assaults on college campuses, said, “I hope that schools don’t interpret this as a sign that they should be cracking down on student activism. Especially now as we see some retrenchment from the current administration, it’s more important than ever that student speech is allowed to thrive on campuses.”

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