Three important figures attended Columbia University graduation on Tuesday: Paul Nungesser, Emma Sulkowicz, and her mattress.
The last of these was not invited. University administrators emailed students earlier today instructing them not to bring "large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people." While Sulkowicz's mattress—the centerpiece of her public awareness campaign designed to shame Nungesser for allegedly raping her—wasn't specifically mentioned, many members of campus believe it was the intended target of the reminder.
It's easy to see why Columbia might have wanted to prevent Sulkowicz from carrying the mattress to the ceremony area: graduations are indeed packed events. But beyond logistical reality, the fact remains that Columbia is named in a Title IX lawsuit filed by Nungesser, who believes administrators were legally obligated to do more to protect him from Sulkowicz's accusations—accusations of which he was cleared.
Nevertheless, Sulkowicz was indeed permitted to bring the mattress to graduation. Multiple news outlets reported this outcome with glowing admiration for her achievement:
- *Salon: "Rape survivor Emma Sulkowicz carries mattress to graduation"
- Business Insider: "The Columbia student who kickstarted a sexual assault activism movement brought her mattress to graduation"
- MTV: "Get Ready To Slow Clap — Emma Sulkowicz Carried Her Mattress To Her Columbia University Graduation"
Forgive me if I don't slow clap. Unacknowledged in these headlines—and the stories that accompany them—is the fact that Nungesser was cleared of wrongdoing. The university found him innocent, based on a simple "preponderance of the evidence" standard, and the police decline to charge him. He's legally innocent.
Does that mean he never raped her? The only people who know that for sure are Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser. We have no way to conclusively tell who is lying. His lawsuit raises some interesting discrepancies in her account, and the record of messages between them bolsters his side of the story without tipping the scales in any remotely definitive sense.
But reporters who continue to give a platform to Sulkowicz should feel obligated to report that this is a messy, messy situation in which the facts are seriously disputed. The closest thing we have to an objective determination—the university's sexual assault trial—went in Nungesser's favor.
Lawmakers should take note as well. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cited Sulkowicz approvingly in her commencement address at Barnard College on Sunday. Missing from her comments was any hint of the broader controversy.
Knowing what we know (and what we don't know), anyone suggesting we should uncritically applaud Sulkowicz is either unscrupulous, or deeply misinformed.
Watch a video of Sulkowicz accepting her diploma below.
[*Update: Salon revised its headline and now calls Sulkowicz an "alleged" rape survivor.]