What was the Columbia Mattress Protest?

May 10, 2022 College, College Student Disciplinary Hearing, Sex Crimes

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

The Columbia University sexual assault case referred to as the “Mattress Case” received national attention in 2014. The case involved two students attending Columbia University at the time—Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser.

On the first day of Sulkowicz’s sophomore year at Columbia in 2012, she claimed that she was raped by Nungesser. The allegations included that Sulkowicz was slapped, choked, and anally raped in her dorm room. The allegations were denied by Nungesser, who insisted that the sexual intercourse was completely consensual.

Sulkowicz did not report the incident to the university until almost a year later, after speaking with two other girls who claimed Nungesser had non-consensual incidents with them. Although three complaints were filed by the girls, Columbia did not find enough reason to hold Nungesser responsible.

In May of 2014—almost two years after the incident—Sulkowicz reported the incident to the New York Police Department. Both Sulkowicz and Nungesser were interviewed by the district attorney’s office. The officer who initially spoke to Sulkowicz and a friend she brought to the station was reportedly dismissive, stating that “of all the cases, 90 percent are bullshit, so I don’t believe your friend for a second.” Additionally, the officer continued lamenting how “painful” the process of investigating sexual assault is and that the investigatory process would “hurt” her. This was discouraging to Sulkowicz who said that “it makes perfect sense why a survivor wouldn’t go to police the moment after she’s been physically violated … if all the police are doing is stressing she’s going to suffer more.” After stating that there was a lack of reasonable suspicion, the police did not pursue any charges.

After the incident had seemed to blow over, Sulkowicz used her experience with the university and the police department to create a performative protest in which she titled, “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)”. She created rules for herself to carry a twin-sized mattress across the campus. She claimed that she would continue to carry the mattress around until Nungesser left or was expelled from Columbia.

Sulkowicz decided to take it a step further by bringing the mattress to her graduation, despite the university telling students not to bring any large items across the stage. Nungesser later answered an interview with The New York Times about the mattress performance. Nungesser stated that the act was not one of artistic expression, but to punish and bully him.

Nungesser expressed that protesters would follow him to classes and take his picture. Nungesser was unable to have a normal college experience after the incident, despite the fact that there were never any charges against him by the police or any actions taken out by the university. Nungesser continued stating that he was falsely accused. For more information on false accusations of sexual assault in university settings, visit our blog post here.

Nungesser’s parents had the following comment on the mattress being brought to the graduation ceremony: “This has been a deeply humiliating experience…A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom.”

The continuation of the situation led Nungesser to file a Title IX lawsuit against Columbia University in 2015. Nungesser claimed that the president, its trustees, and Sulkowicz’s senior thesis advisor were all responsible for exposing him to gender-based harassment and a hostile educational environment. Nungesser pushed that allowing the project to happen on campus for over nine months ruined his college experience, emotional well-being, reputation, and future career prospects.

Under Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policy, it prohibits “unwelcome remarks about the private parts of a person’s body and graffiti concerning the sexual activity of another person.” Nungesser’s attorney claimed that Sulkowicz had created public harassment and violated the university’s policies by displaying drawings that were supposedly depicting Nungesser’s genitals.

After some back and forth, with the Columbia lawyers asking for the case to be dropped, the university finally announced that they reached a settlement with Nungesser in 2017. The details were not disclosed, but Columbia had the following statement:

“Columbia recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience. Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student—accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are not found responsible—is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.”

Responses to the Protest

The Columbia Mattress Case received various responses during the period of the incident. On one hand, Sulkowicz received high praise for her ability and bravery to turn a traumatic experience into an art piece. The case also resulted in a nationwide debate on how sexual assault is addressed in universities.

Andrew Miltenberg, a New York lawyer who focuses on Title IX cases, had the following statement regarding Nungesser’s resolution in the case:

“I think this case fits into the larger debate in that the mark of being called a rapist is a significant one, and it follows you regardless of whether or not the university finds you responsible. It highlights in a way how polarizing the topic is and how much damage can be done just by having to go through the process, let alone worrying about whether it’s going to be handled fairly or not.”

After Columbia addressed that the university stood by its clearing of any misconduct by Nungesser, they stated that the student had graduated, “as a distinguished John Jay Scholar,” recognizing “remarkable academic and personal achievements, dynamism, intellectual curiosity, and original thinking.”

Miltenburg stated that he hopes the resolution for Nungesser allows him to put the incident in the past, and focus on his future as an aspiring filmmaker.

Updated Student Due Process Rights

In the summer of 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bill HB 233 that expanded due process rights for students during university hearings. The following are the added provisions:

  • Sufficient details and timely notice for the allegations in preparing one’s defense;
  • Access to both inculpatory and exculpatory information known to the institution;
  • Including a list of the witnesses who have provided a testimony against the defendant;
  • An expressed presumption of innocence;
  • To remain silent;
  • Presenting the evidence and witnesses;
  • Receiving active assistance of an advisor, or an attorney, who can be an advocate to the student and for the student organization’s behalf during all stages of the proceedings, which includes the right for the advocate to present evidence and question witnesses;
  • An appeal to a senior administrator who didn’t participate in the proceedings on the appeal; and
  • Complete and accurate records of the proceeding.

University Hearing Resources

If a student has been accused of a crime, it is important to have a full understanding of the Student Code of Conduct. There is also a chance that the university will call the student in for a hearing, which you can read more about here. For more information on student rights and understanding alleged student violations, find our blog here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Sexual assault accusations are extremely serious and can have long-term effects on an individual. As seen in the Columbia University case, even without a criminal charge, the social stigma of being accused of rape or sexual violence can haunt and follow someone throughout their life.

If you or someone you love has been accused of sexual assault, it is imperative that you reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. Getting quality legal advice can make the difference between facing severe criminal punishments and getting your name cleared. Don Pumphrey and his legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have represented clients all across Florida, and understand what it takes to strategize a defense to your case. Call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today for a free consultation.

Written by Karissa Key

Back to Top