Laura Kipnis, the Northwestern University professor who faced down a Title IX investigation after writing an essay about sexual relationships between students and professors, is now being sued for defamation.
Her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, discusses at great length the Title IX proceedings against Kipnis's colleague Peter Ludlow, who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by a female graduate student. Kipnis defended Ludlow in an essay for The Chronicle Review, which led the student to file a Title IX complaint against Kipnis as well, on grounds that Kipnis was retaliating against the student. Kipnis was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the university.
But now the book has drawn a complaint of its own—from the same student, "Jane Doe," who accuses Kipnis of falsely representing details of Doe's relationship with Ludlow.
"[Kipnis and publisher HarperCollins] recklessly pursued fame and profit without regard for the harm their actions would cause to Plaintiff, a young and promising graduate student who—rather than being on a mission to end Ludlow's career (as Kipnis suggests)—in fact only very reluctantly came forward to disclose his conduct after she learned of other allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with students," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit provides Doe's version of the events: she claims Ludlow singled her out, even before she enrolled at Northwestern, and then aggressively pursued a romantic relationship with her. Doe was reluctant to turn Ludlow down completely since he was an important academic in her area of study, so she gradually grew closer to him. Eventually, after a night of heavy drinking, she woke up in bed with him—a sexual encounter she described as nonconsensual. Eventually, she filed a Title IX complaint against Ludlow after learning of his allegedly nonconsensual sexual relationship with another student.
Kipnis has defended Ludlow, and described the Title IX proceedings against him as "like watching a person be burned at the stake in slow motion." According to her version of events—which is supported by the massive volume of text messages sent between Doe and Ludlow—the relationship was consensual.
"What would it mean to not consent to sending a thousand text messages?" Kipnis writes in the book.
Doe's lawsuit accuses Kipnis of defaming her with actual malice, publicizing private facts about Doe, and inflicting negative emotional stress. Complicating this charge is the fact that Kipnis did not actually use Doe's name in the book—she used a pseudonym, albeit one that resembles Doe's real name, according to the lawsuit.
Before publishing the book, HarperCollins would have subjected it to a rigorous legal review, which makes me doubtful that the lawsuit has much chance of succeeding, unless it's revealed that the publisher was employing Rolling Stone's fact-checker.
But if this is a she-said, she-said—or, perhaps, a she-said, she-said-he-said—it's one in which a whole lot of evidence seems to be on Kipnis's side. The text of the lawsuit, which presents Doe's side in the best light possible, doesn't actually do a very good job of proving her case. For instance, the lawsuit contends that Kipnis's book misrepresents Doe as "litigious." But how is that a misrepresentation? Doe has used both the Title IX process, and a lawsuit, to adjudicate her dispute with Kipnis.
Part of the lawsuit rests on the idea that Title IX proceedings should be closed, and that Kipnis did not have the right to call attention to the Ludlow case (paradoxically, many claim that Title IX actually prohibits discussion of Title IX cases). But it will be difficult to establish that Kipnis was wrong to publish facts, unless Doe can do a better job than this of showing that the facts were actually wrong.
And while Doe claims that Kipnis published her text messages out of context, as KC Johnson notes, the lawsuit fails to specify a single example of this.
"Lawsuit makes Kipnis look even more sympathetic," writes Johnson.
Indeed, there's a sense in which this lawsuit actually proves the central ideas of Kipnis's book—that sexual paranoia pervades the modern university campus, where messy relationships are treated like assault, women are presumed to lack agency when it comes to consent, and tribunals are seen as the solution to every dispute.