NPR Identifies False Accuser As ‘Survivor’

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A Boston-based National Public Radio correspondent received a torrent of criticism over the weekend after she defended the media organization’s decision to refer to a Columbia University student who falsely accused another student of rape as a “survivor.”

The piece, produced for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” examined a new approach to adjudicating campus sexual assault allegations known as “restorative justice.” NPR correspondent Tovia Smith said the proposed practice involves focusing on the harm done “and finding ways to repair it” instead of “judging or punishing the perpetrator.”

Smith quoted in her report an activist named Emma Sulkowicz, whom she described as a “survivor.”

Sulkowicz made New York City tabloid headlines starting in 2014 over her decision to tote a mattress around the Columbia University campus in an effort to shame another student she claimed raped her, and to protest Columbia’s handling of her complaint. Sulkowicz called her mattress-hauling act an example of performance art, and made it the central focus of her senior year art thesis.

The Upper East Side-raised Sulkowicz vowed to carry the twin-size mattress everywhere she went until fellow student Paul Nungesser was either expelled or she graduated, whichever came first. The project, which she dubbed “Carry That Weight,” continued all the way up until graduation day, when Sulkowicz brought the mattress to her commencement ceremony.

Even under the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ interpretation of Title IX rules, established under then-President Barack Obama, involving a low “preponderance of the evidence” standard for adjudication, Sulkowicz’s complaint did not result in any punishment.  

Nungesser, however, was not amused by his accuser’s mattress stunt, for which she earned academic credit.

Both the university and police had cleared him of wrongdoing, yet his accuser was never punished for shaming him at every turn by lugging her mattress around campus. Nungesser later sued the school, and produced copies of texts and Facebook conversations that put the focus back on Sulkowicz, who appeared to be smitten with Nungesser and left feeling jilted when their consensual sexual trysts did not translate into a more serious relationship.

In an odd coincidence, Columbia settled Nungesser’s amended lawsuit for an undisclosed sum just days before NPR’s Smith reached out to Sulkowicz to comment on the “restorative justice” suggestion:

Activist and survivor Emma Sulkowicz says the approach is not appropriate for everyone. Sometimes, she says, trial and punishment are called for, as in the case of a man on her campus who was accused of several assaults.

“I think this person in particular, given his track record of person after person after person … is a sadist in the truest meaning of that word,” she says. “So we just wanted him to get off campus.”

Sulkowicz also worries about who will facilitate the conversations. She says campus administrators seriously botched her trial process, asking ignorant and insensitive questions. She questions how they will manage the more nuanced restorative justice approach.

Smith’s description of Sulkowicz as a “survivor” apparently touched a nerve, and her efforts on social media to defend her description of Sulkowicz — who she noted earned survivor status merely since she self-identified as one — sparked more backlash.