Emma Sulkowicz has been lionized as a feminist icon for her “mattress girl” anti-rape protest targeting a fellow Columbia University student, but his lawsuit paints her as a woman scorned who sought revenge after being rejected.
In a brief filed Thursday against Columbia, Jean-Paul Nungesser says Ms. Sulkowicz told him repeatedly that she loved him in the months before she lodged a “non-consensual sexual intercourse” complaint against him with the university.
He was found “not responsible” by a campus panel in 2013 after a seven-month investigation, and the New York County District Attorney declined to press charges in 2014.
Even so, Ms. Sulkowicz’s highly publicized on-campus protest has “damaged, if not effectively destroyed, Paul Nungesser’s college experience, his reputation, his emotional well-being and his future career prospects,” the lawsuit says.
According to the brief, the two students were close friends at first and discussed intimate matters. In private Facebook messages reprinted in the brief, she asked him to tell her then-boyfriend to use condoms when he had sex with other women. She also said that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Nungesser had sex twice as freshmen as part of a “friends with benefits” arrangement. Both are now seniors at Columbia.
“As is evident from Emma’s Facebook messages to Paul during the summer prior to their sophomore year, Emma’s yearning for Paul had become very intense,” said the brief filed by New York City attorney Andrew T. Miltenberg in Manhattan federal court.
During the summer of 2012, Mr. Nungesser, who is a German citizen, says he told her that he was dating another woman while home in Europe. Upon returning to school for their sophomore year, she said, “i want to snuggle with you — and talk about our summers — but not right now I also love you.”
“Emma repeatedly messaged Paul throughout that summer that she loved and missed him. She was quick to inquire whether he was in love with the woman he was seeing abroad,” said the lawsuit. “Thereafter, she continued pursuing him, reiterating that she loved him. However, when Paul did not reciprocate these intense feelings, and instead showed interest in dating other women, Emma became viciously angry.”
Ms. Sulkowicz has alleged that he raped and choked her Aug. 27, 2012, in her dorm room at the start of their sophomore year. After the university ruled in his favor, she launched her “Carry the Weight” protest in 2014, calling him a “serial rapist” and saying she would lug the mattress with her everywhere on campus until he withdrew or was expelled.
The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court against Columbia, its trustees, President Lee C. Bollinger and visual arts professor Jon Kessler, claims that the university “intentionally discriminated against Paul on the basis of his male sex by condoning a hostile educational environment,” a violation of Title IX.
For example, she received course credit for her protest from the university’s visual arts department. Mr. Kessler, who approved the performance-art project, told the Columbia Spectator that “carrying around your university bed — which was also the site of your rape — is an amazingly significant and poignant and powerful symbol,” the lawsuit said.
Ms. Sulkowicz did not respond immediately to a message asking for comment, but in an email to The Associated Press, she said, “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?” she said.
Comments appearing Friday on the website Jezebel, which posted the lawsuit, include criticism of the complaint as “horrendous victim-blaming.”
Columbia spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said in an email that, “The University does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
In the lawsuit, Mr. Nungesser says Columbia contributed to the harassment by allowing Ms. Sulkowicz to conduct her public protest on campus, including carrying the mattress to class. Although university confidentiality policy prohibits the naming of those involved in the complaint, his identity was soon known both on campus and off as her campaign drew national and international attention.
Her complaint alleged that Mr. Nungesser “pinned down her arms above her head while also strangling her throat and hitting her across the face” while raping her. Two days later, messages exchanged by the two students show that he invited her to a party, and she responded by saying “”lol yussss also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz.”
Two weeks later, she said, “I wanna see yoyououoyou,” and he responded by wishing her happy birthday. She messaged back, “I love you Paul. Where are you?! ?!?!?!”
She filed her complaint seven months after the alleged rape. Mr. Nungesser was found not responsible even though the university used the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning the allegation was more likely than not, not the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases.
Two other women filed complaints afterward against Mr. Nungesser for “non-consensual sexual misconduct,” but the university dismissed one charge without a hearing and found him not responsible for the second charge.
The lawsuit alleges Ms. Sulkowicz encouraged both women to file complaints “[i]n an effort to bolster her ease, and driven by her feelings of rejection and interest in making a public impact and statement.”
He spent the next semester abroad in Prague. During that time, Ms. Sulkowicz held an April 2014 press conference with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, on the Columbia campus in which she said, “My rapist — a serial rapist — still remains on campus” and that, “Every day I live in fear of seeing him.”
The lawsuit says university officials should have acted to keep the protest off campus, but “by refusing to protect Paul Nungesser, Columbia University first became a silent bystander and then turned into an active supporter of a fellow student’s harassment campaign by institutionalizing it and heralding it.”
At one point, Mr. Bollinger responded by announcing new policies to help combat campus sexual assault, including the release of data on such complaints, but “showed no public regard for Paul,” said the lawsuit.
“President Bollinger thus 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,” said the brief.
Universities have come under increasing pressure by the Obama administration to crack down on campus sexual assault or risk losing their federal funding.
Columbia is now under a federal investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for its compliance with Title IX on campus sexual assault following complaints from students and alumni, including Ms. Sulkowicz.
College students suspended or expelled over what they describe as bogus sexual-assault charges have increasingly turned to the courts to have their punishments overturned. In some cases, students have received financial settlements from the universities.
What makes Mr. Nungesser’s case unique is that he was never disciplined by the university. He seeks damages and attorney’s fees, plus costs and disbursements.