March 12, 2016 / 1:10 AM / 2 years ago

Columbia University prevails in lawsuit over mattress protest

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Columbia University on Friday won the dismissal of a lawsuit by a graduate over the school’s decision to allow a student who accused him of rape to carry a mattress around campus in protest, even though Columbia had cleared him of the allegation.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in Manhattan said Paul Nungesser failed to show that Columbia discriminated against him based on his gender by allowing and condoning conduct during the 2014-2015 academic year by his accuser, Emma Sulkowicz.

“While we’re disappointed with the judge’s ruling today, we believe that this is a very strong case and we will continue in our pursuit of justice for Mr. Nungesser,” Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer for Nungesser, said in an email.

Nungesser had sued Columbia, its president Lee Bollinger, and visual arts professor Jon Kessler, who oversaw Sulkowicz’s senior thesis “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which she drew national attention by carrying a mattress around the campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights.

Sulkowicz had accused Nungesser of raping her in a dormitory in August 2012. Nungesser had said the sex was consensual. The university ultimately decided not to discipline him.

Nungesser said that by letting Sulkowicz protest, including in an October 2014 “Carry That Weight National Day of Action” on-campus rally that she helped organize, Columbia violated Title IX, which bans gender discrimination by schools that receive federal money.

The plaintiff said the unwanted attention hurt his academic experience, made him fear for his safety, and forced him to return to his native Germany after graduation to find a job.

In his decision, Woods said he did not suggest that Nungesser’s final year at Columbia was “pleasant or easy.”

But he said Nungesser’s position 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.

“Neither the text nor the purpose of Title IX supports this conclusion,” Woods wrote.

The judge said Nungesser could replead his Title IX claim and some other claims, including under a New York state human rights law.

Columbia, in a statement, said the decision “brings us closer to the point that this litigation, addressing issues understandably difficult for many, can be concluded.”

Sulkowicz was not named as a defendant. She has also graduated from Columbia.

The case is Nungesser v. Columbia University et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-03216.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang

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