Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is coming under fire for hosting at the State of the Union address Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student known as “mattress girl,” whose anti-rape campaign against a fellow student has been criticized as harassment.
Ms. Sulkowicz has become a symbol of the campus anti-rape movement for her “Carry That Weight” project, in which she has vowed to lug a mattress around campus until a student she accused of rape is expelled or leaves Columbia, a campaign her critics describe as a “personal vendetta.”
Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) blasted the New York Democrat’s decision to invite Ms. Sulkowicz to Thursday’s address, calling the honor “undeserved.”
“Sen. Gillibrand’s honor to Ms. Sulkowicz is undeserved and violates the principles of confidentiality and gender equality of Title IX, the law that oversees sexual misconduct on campus,” said FACE in a Sunday statement. “Ms. Sulkowicz failed to establish any wrongdoing by the student she accused after a tribunal, and an appeal at Columbia, as well as an investigation by the New York Police Department.”
Paul Nungesser, the student she accused of rape, said last week that Ms. Sulkowicz’s accusations are “untrue and unfounded.”
“I am shocked to learn that Sen. Gillibrand is actively supporting Ms. Sulkowicz’s defamation campaign against me by providing her with a public forum in which to broadcast her grave allegation,” Mr. Nungesser told New York Magazine. “By doing so, Sen. Gillibrand is participating in a harassment campaign against someone, who, for good reason, has been found innocent by all investigating bodies.”
Ms. Gillibrand, sponsor of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, praised Ms. Sulkowicz as “one of a growing chorus of student survivor activists who have taken matters into their own hands by telling their stories of assault in order to shine a light on the scourge of sexual assault on our college campuses today.”
“I can’t tell you how inspired I have been by Emma and all of her sisters in arms who have made their voices heard and given voice to thousands of other survivors all around the country,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a Thursday op-ed for Huffington Post. “This is their movement, and it’s my hope that by inviting Emma to the State of the Union, we can further amplify her voice as we work to reform the system that all too often sweeps sexual assaults under the rug.”
The senator also said Ms. Sulkowicz’s mattress-carrying project symbolizes “the burden she carries every single day as long as her rapist is still on campus,” a description that brought a rebuke from Brooklyn College professor K.C. Johnson.
“Note the senator’s remarkable word choice. Gillibrand didn’t say ‘as long as her alleged rapist is still on campus.’ Or ‘as long as the person she says raped her is still on campus,’ ” said Mr. Johnson in a post on the website “Minding the Campus.”
“No: Gillibrand, a sitting U.S. senator, has described a Columbia student as a ‘rapist’ — that is, someone guilty of a criminal act — based solely on an allegation from a single person. And not merely a generic type of allegation, but one that even Columbia didn’t deem credible and the police did not pursue,” Mr. Johnson said.
Ms. Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts major, has accused Mr. Nungesser of raping her in her dorm room in her sophomore year. After the university found him not responsible, Ms. Sulkowicz and others filed a federal complaint against Columbia.
Universities have come under pressure from the Obama administration to crack down on campus sexual assault, which critics say has resulted in a process that increasingly leans in favor of the accuser and against the accused.
“[E]ven under Columbia’s extraordinarily imbalanced sexual assault policy, which tilts nearly all procedures in the advantage of the accusing student, the disciplinary panel didn’t find Sulkowicz’s allegation credible,” Mr. Johnson said. “Why Gillibrand came to believe Sulkowicz remains unclear.”
Ms. Gillibrand’s invitation comes amid a backlash over the campus anti-rape movement, which culminated in November in Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to apologize for an article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia after questions about its credibility surfaced.
FACE was founded in July by Sherry Seefeld, whose son was suspended from college after a rape accusation from a fellow student ultimately charged with filing a false police report.
“Sen. Gillibrand’s choice to honor Ms. Sulkowicz is offensive to basic fairness, and the rights of any student, male or female, who has faced accusations of sexual misconduct, participated in a Title IX tribunal and prevailed,” the FACE statement said. “That student is as a matter of law innocent, and has the right to stay on campus and complete his education in peace.”