Northwestern Students’ Mattress Protest Fails

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Mon, Jun 8 - 7:33 pm EDT | 11 months ago by
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With a new, trendy version of social justice appearing every few months, it was only a matter of time before the height of insanity reached a peak – behold, world! We have witnessed the birth of Mattress Activism – a heavy push with feather-light meaning.

Columbia University rape accuser Emma Sulkowicz founded the clunky form of protest after the University and two separate Assistant District Attorneys refused to pursue charges of rape against fellow student Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz’s complaint came months after the alleged assault took place, and in the time between the incident and the accusation Sulkowicz regularly contacted Nungesser, in both SMS and via social media, with cutesy I love you’s and Come see me’s. Sulkowicz went viral this past year for her senior art project – carrying a mattress similar to the one she claims she was raped on, in what was a protest against the school’s handling of the alleged rape. Sulkowicz vowed to carry the mattress until either graduation or her alleged rapist was expelled, whichever came first. In May, Sulkowicz graduated with her mattress.

Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis was just recently cleared of a Title IX violation, the law allowing colleges to adjudicate sexual assault, despite the fact that she was not being accused of sexual assault. In February, Kipnis wrote an article detailing the attitudes present on university and college campuses regarding sexual assault, focusing on the regulation of consensual professor-student relationships. She wrote that she thought the new sexual assault policies were founded more in paranoia and less in facts. In a scathing indictment of the culture of consent activism present on campuses, Kipnis states, “women have spent the past century and a half demanding to be treated as consenting adults… now a cohort on campuses [is] demanding to relinquish those rights, which I believe is a disastrous move for feminism.”

Northwestern Students' Mattress Protest Fails
Source: The Daily Northwestern

On May 29, Kipnis penned a second article – detailing the allegations and retaliations against her as well as the absurd process she has been exposed to as a result of her first piece. Students on campus began carrying mattresses in protest of Kipnis’ article – a move that Kipnis described as “symbolically incoherent” considering her article focused on consensual student-professor relationships, whereas the mattress act was birthed from a protest of student-on-student sexual assault. In addition to the public show, students went to Northwestern’s president with a petition demanding a swift and official condemnation of Kipnis’ essay.

Despite being informed that she was under investigation, Kipnis was not initially given any information on the accusations against her. Kipnis was forbidden from obtaining an attorney, and would not learn details of the accusations until she met with investigators. Kipnis, quite reasonably, decided to decline meeting with them. The investigators, who were attorneys from an outside law firm hired by Northwestern, only then agreed to inform her of the accusations via Skype.

“Both complainants were graduate students. One turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the essay. She was bringing charges on behalf of the university community as well as on behalf of two students I’d mentioned — not by name — because the essay had a ‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct. I’d also made deliberate mistakes, she charged (a few small errors that hadn’t been caught in fact-checking were later corrected by the editors), and had violated the nonretaliation provision of the faculty handbook.”

The second complaint was a person mentioned, not by name, in connection with another professor’s lawsuit against Northwestern and one student for defamation stemming from two sexual harassment investigations. “Much of this remains puzzling to me, including how someone can bring charges in someone else’s name, who is allowing intellectual disagreement to be redefined as retaliation, and why a professor can’t write about a legal case that’s been nationally reported, precisely because she’s employed by the university where the events took place. Wouldn’t this mean that academic freedom doesn’t extend to academics discussing matters involving their own workplaces?”

In addition to the essay, one of Kipnis’ tweets were included in the complaint against her. “It’s a problem that ‘trauma’ is now deployed re any bad experience. And dating is not the same as rape!” While the person who Kipnis was responding to appears to have deleted their account, rendering the prior tweet unviewable, it certainly does not appear to meet the criteria for sexual harassment. “Please pause to note that a Title IX charge can now be brought against a professor over a tweet,” Kipnis wrote. “Also that my tweets were apparently being monitored.”

“…There are a lot of grudges these days. The reality is that the more colleges devote themselves to creating ‘safe spaces‘ — that new watchword — for students, the more dangerous those campuses become for professors. It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.”

Kipnis declined an offer to file her own retaliation complaint, despite asserting that she felt all parties involved were using the process for political purposes. Although she was assured that a verdict on her case would be given within 60 days, Kipnis has heard nothing. In fact, a new complaint has been filed against the faculty-support person who accompanied her to the session with the investigators in lieu of an attorney.

In a tweet on June 3, Kipnis wrote, “Title IX update: University not proceeding on any further charges, so in the clear until next essay. My thx to well-wishers & the rabble.”

While Kipnis was fortunately cleared, the actions taken against her not only pose a threat to academic freedom, but also simultaneously pose a threat to freedom of speech and expression. It has now been established that an article with vague references and no names can be charged under the same Title as physical sexual assault. Daring to assist an accused person as a support person and, even more daringly, speaking of this support, can result in you being charged under the same Title. Such egregious infringements, when coupled with the inability to be represented by a lawyer while being investigated by other lawyers sets a terrifyingly precedent that will require the most herculean of efforts to combat.

Liz Finnegan is a soulless ginger with no political leanings. Pun enthusiast. Self-proclaimed “World’s Okayest Person.” Retro gaming contributor for The Escapist.

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