University defends mattress-carrying project against lawsuit

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NEW YORK (AP) — Citing the importance of the First Amendment, Columbia University asked a judge Friday to reject a student's lawsuit alleging the school failed to protect him after a onetime friend called him a "serial rapist" and carried a mattress around campus to protest sexual abuse.

The New York City university said in a federal court filing that it was a "fatal flaw" in Paul Nungesser's lawsuit that he failed to sufficiently claim intentional gender discrimination by Columbia. His lawsuit alleged that the university's actions caused him to face gender discrimination and defamation during the last school year and damaged his job prospects.

The German citizen sued the university this year, saying it effectively sponsored attacks against him by letting Emma Sulkowicz obtain class credit with a mattress-toting project that was designed to draw attention to her claims against him for a year leading up to commencement proceedings. The lawsuit said Sulkowicz has repeatedly and publicly called him a "serial rapist," resulting in national and international media attention. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages.

Columbia's lawyers wrote that the lawsuit suggested that the university was obligated "to silence Ms. Sulkowicz, preventing her from speaking publicly on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses — an issue of national concern."

"However, at colleges and universities like Columbia the 'atmosphere of speculation, experiment, and creation is essential to the quality of higher education,'" the lawyers wrote, adding that federal laws against gender discrimination were "never intended to curb this cherished tradition of vigorous, even raucous, debate."

They said letting Sulkowicz proceed with her project was a "decision at the heart of academic freedom."

"This is especially true here, where Ms. Sulkowicz was a visual arts major and inherently subjective judgments of aesthetic value were at issue," the lawyers said.

Sulkowicz has argued her case was badly mishandled by the school disciplinary panel after she reported in 2013 she was raped in her dorm months before. After a university investigation, a school panel heard Sulkowicz and Nungesser testify before clearing Nungesser of the accusation.

The Associated Press normally does not identify people claiming they were sexually assaulted, but makes exceptions when the alleged victim has spoken publicly on the subject.

Andrew T. Miltenberg, a lawyer for Nungesser, said the university "shamefully bowed to social pressure" and turned its back on his client.

"In this instance, the disciplinary system worked correctly at Columbia," he said in an email. "That still was not enough to save an innocent person from the wave of public sentiment regarding assaults on campus. Paul Nungesser quickly became a convenient scapegoat, a whipping boy, and Columbia not only stood idly by, but often participated in the attacks on Paul Nungesser. There is no amount of legal theory that can save Columbia from that reality."

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