Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on Sep. 5, 2014 in New York City.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty

Columbia student accused of rape sues university


The Columbia University student accused of rape by fellow student Emma Sulkowicz, who became a symbol of campus sexual assault with a high-profile campaign to bring awareness to her case, is fighting back in court. 

Melissa Harris-Perry, 9/6/14, 11:40 AM ET

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Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz talks about why she is carrying her mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled or moves off campus.
Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz talks about why she is carrying her mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled or moves off campus.
Paul Nungesser, who was cleared of responsibility by the university, filed a discrimination suit in federal district court on Thursday against Columbia University, president Lee C. Bollinger, and Jon Kessler, a visual arts professor who advised Sulkowicz on a thesis project that involved carrying her mattress around campus unless Nungesser was expelled.

Sulkowicz, who has appeared on msnbc several times to tell her story and was a guest of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the 2015 State of the Union, has long criticized the university’s proceedings in investigating her complaint. She is not named in the suit. Instead, the lawsuit contends that the university and its top officials have “significantly damaged, if not effectively destroyed Paul Nungesser’s college experience, his reputation, his emotional well-being and his future career prospects,” which Nungesser alleges constitutes “gender based harassment and misconduct” in violation of state and federal law.

Sulkowicz, the suit argues, is “actively earning course credit from Columbia for this outrageous display of harassment and defamation of Paul and she is using this to fulfill her graduation requirement of a senior thesis, even despite clear notice by Paul and his parents to President Bollinger and other Columbia persons of authority, that Paul’s legal rights are being violated.”

The suit accuses Columbia’s president of having “displayed a contemptible moral cowardice in bowing down to the witch hunt against an innocent student instead of standing up for the truth and taking appropriate steps to protect Paul from gender based harassment.” Nungesser says he was ”targeted because he is a male, and attacked for his (consensual) sexual activity.” 

RELATED: Columbia University to require students to take sex respect course

The university has appeared to try to stay above the fray in the very public aftermath of the case, but Nungesser’s suit implicates them by saying they “even provided financial endorsement to [Sulkowicz’s actions] by paying a portion of the clean-up fee at a [Columbia] campus rally in which Emma publicly declared that Paul is her rapist.” Moreover, the suit says, “Columbia allowed Columbia student Emma to carry the mattress into each of her classes, the library, and on campus-provided transportation and therefore endorsed Columbia student Emma’s gender based harassment, even though it was based on what Columbia had found after investigation to be untrue allegations.” 

Nungesser is a German national who says his educational and professional pursuits, along with his ability to stay in the United States, have been destroyed by the university’s actions. The suit requests a jury trial and monetary damages.