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This Is What a Broken System Looks Like

As has now been widely reported by the media, Paul Nungesser—the male student at the center of the Columbia University “mattress” case—has filed a federal lawsuit against the university. The Associated Press provides a useful summary of Nungesser’s claims:

In his lawsuit, Nungesser said a Columbia-owned website had presented as fact that he sexually assaulted Sulkowicz, a senior majoring in visual arts. It said that the school allowed Sulkowicz to carry a mattress into classes, the library and campus-provided transportation as part of her senior thesis, that Kessler approved the "Mattress Project" for her course credit and that Sulkowicz's pledge to carry her mattress to graduation may prevent Nungesser and his parents, who'd like to fly from Germany, from participating in graduation ceremonies.

"Day-to-day life is unbearably stressful, as Emma and her mattress parade around campus each and every day," the suit said.

As a result of publicity that resulted in media reports in 35 countries, the lawsuit said, 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."

This is not, as some have suggested, a “nuisance lawsuit.” The current interpretation of Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, arguably invites the type of claims that Nungesser is making. But from FIRE’s perspective, the case is notable because it illustrates just what a broken system looks like.

Here is what we know for certain: Two students at Columbia University, on both sides of a sexual assault allegation, have completely lost faith in Columbia’s ability to deliver a trustworthy, reliable verdict. Emma Sulkowicz, who believes that Columbia wrongly cleared Nungesser of sexual assault in its internal disciplinary process, has devoted the remainder of her college career to highlighting that perceived injustice. Paul Nungesser, who believes that Columbia has improperly allowed him to be labeled a rapist on campus despite having cleared him of that charge, has now filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the university. And as a result of this loss of confidence on both sides, a great number of very personal details about two students’ sex lives have become national news.

And yet with every new piece of federal guidance, universities like Columbia only become more and more entangled in handling claims of serious felony misconduct. Time and again, universities demonstrate—in ways that harm both victims and the accused—that they are simply not equipped to address such complicated and serious cases. Doubling down on this broken system is not the answer, and until something changes, we are likely to see more cases like this one.

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