Fifty Shades of Grey vs. Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies by Cynthia P Garrett
Last October Keifer Johnson, once a well-respected student and successful track athlete at Western State Colorado University (WSCU) in Gunnison, Colorado, filed a complaint in the United States District Court of Colorado against WSCU, its president and several administrators. Mr. Johnson claims the defendants maliciously conspired to subject him to two consecutive disciplinary proceedings arising out of his alleged sexual harassment of Onna Gould, a former WSCU student who is named in court documents.
“I’VE BEEN BAD. PUNISH ME. HARD.”
Johnson met Ms. Gould when, as a freshman, he became a teaching assistant (TA) and tutor for her spring semester English class. The couple bonded over their mutual love of poetry and prose, and in May 2013 their friendship evolved into a sexual relationship inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey, a popular, erotic romance novel they both had read. Fifty Shades of Grey, which is notable for its detailed descriptions of sexual practices involving bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sado-masochism, has sold over 100 million copies since its publication in 2011. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifty_Shades_of_Grey
A profusion of graphic, sometimes sexually explicit communications between Johnson and Gould corroborate his insistence that their sexual relationship was consensual. Typical of the numerous text and Facebook messages exchanged between the couple is one in which Johnson warned Ms. Gould, “Your misconduct, so to speak, does not reflect anything aside from your disobedience regarding the rules . . . HAVE MY BELT READY,” to which Gould readily responded, “YOU MIGHT NEED TO SPANK ME NOW, cause damn this rum, and wine are good. PUNISH ME FOR THAT.” In another interchange Ms. Gould pleads, “I’VE BEEN BAD. PUNISH ME. HARD … I WANT YOU TO USE THE BELT AGAIN.”
Gould had been on academic probation and failing her classes since her first semester at WSCU, most likely a consequence of her “serious” drug and alcohol problems. Ms. Gould’s mother Angela Gould, a psychologist, had arranged for her daughter to enter a Chicago inpatient substance abuse treatment facility after school ended in June.
While Ms. Gould was in treatment, Johnson wrote her a florid, sexually graphic, eleven-page letter describing their imaginary engagement in sado-masochistic sexual activities. In retrospect, Johnson says he was attempting to “keep a spark, in a stressed relationship.” Unfortunately, Johnson imprudently emailed what came to be known as his “Dear Onna Letter” to Ms. Gould’s mother, asked her to print and deliver it to her daughter, and trusted that Angela Gould would not read it. The “Dear Onna Letter” reads in part:
Forcing your pleading eyes down, I trail my hand, gripping your supple ass, and slide your rocking hips from your jeans, and with an excruciating twist I split drenched panties, clean off. “Never act without my command.” Answering hopelessly, your desperate hips thrash into mine, I raise myself and crash into you. Pouring, I lash you raw; spank your dripping ass, always in the same place, leaving you shaking, leaving you drenched to the bone.
The couples’ soap-opera-esque relationship continued after Gould discovered she was pregnant and left the treatment facility in early July 2013. Gould and her mother reportedly argued for days over whether or not she should have an abortion. Johnson says he supported either alternative and, on a few occasions, travelled the 200 miles to be with Ms. Gould at her mother’s home in Boulder. When Gould eventually decided to terminate the pregnancy, Mr. Johnson left (and was then fired from) his job so he could accompany her to and from the abortion procedure and stay for a few days afterward. By that time, however, Johnson was growing tired of Gould’s “erratic behavior,” and his parents were encouraging him to end the relationship, which he finally did on July 27th.
First Disciplinary Proceeding
The first disciplinary proceeding against Mr. Johnson was initiated shortly after he returned to WSCU for his sophomore year. In late August 2013 Johnson was advised that WSCU had received a complaint from an “outside party” about his relationship with Gould. In interviews with WSCU officials Johnson repeatedly was questioned about the consensual nature of the couple’s sexual relations, as well the propriety of his “Dear Onna Letter,” which Angela Gould apparently had provided to WSCU officials along with a “laundry list” of Johnson’s alleged transgressions, such as nonconsensual sex with her daughter four days after the abortion, ejaculating on Angela Gould’s bedspread and locking her dog out of the house in 100-degree heat.
Mr. Johnson eventually was accused of unspecified “inappropriate behavior” in connection with his relationship with Ms. Gould. WSCU officials later added charges for Mr. Johnson’s violation of an unwritten WSCU “rule” proscribing his inadvertent possession - not use - of Ms. Gould’s expired dining card, as well as “breaking and entering,” based on his foolish attempt to enter a dorm through an open basement window.
A decision on the first disciplinary proceeding was scheduled for August 28th. In the meantime, Angela Gould’s “laundry list” and the “Dear Onna Letter” were circulated to various WSCU faculty and administrators, resulting in the termination of Johnson’s TA position (for which he would have received course credit), and his suspension from the track team (endangering a partial scholarship.)
On August 28th a WSCU official issued a decision finding Johnson responsible for still ambiguous “inappropriate behavior,” “misuse” of Ms. Gould’s expired ID card and “breaking and entering” into a dorm. Johnson’s penalties were community service, an apology to WSCU dining staff, counseling and one year’s probation.
Second Disciplinary Proceeding
Two days after resolution of the first proceeding, WSCU’s Title IX coordinator informed Johnson that on August 29th Ms. Gould had filed a complaint against him - unrelated to the previous proceeding - and he was being investigated for unspecified sexual misconduct under Title IX.
Ms. Gould’s “complaint” eventually was discovered to be an unsigned, typewritten list of various incidents of sexual and nonsexual interactions between the couple, including claims that Johnson had sexually assaulted Ms. Gould twice: once in May 2013 by “making out” with her and a second time after the abortion. Gould’s complaint repeated many of the same transgressions as the “laundry list” Angela Gould had provided to WSCU officials at least two weeks earlier.
Mr. Johnson filed his initial complaint after the second disciplinary hearing was scheduled for October 22nd and asked the court for a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent the hearing from being held. The court granted the temporary restraining order but later denied the injunction, finding that the two disciplinary proceedings were not based on sufficiently similar events and Johnson had not shown that WSCU was aware of the facts underlying the second proceeding until after its resolution of the first. Mr. Johnson ultimately was found not responsible for violating WSCU’s sexual harassment policies at the second disciplinary hearing in December 2013.
Documents Reveal a Campaign to Discredit “a douche bag” and “make his life suck”
In April 2014 Johnson obtained documents through discovery which confirmed his suspicion that WSCU officials had been aware of Ms. Gould’s sexual assault allegations prior to completion of his first disciplinary proceeding. Mr. Johnson promptly filed a motion asking the court to sanction the defendants for knowingly misleading the court and misrepresenting the facts. The discovered documents included an August 16th email in which Angela Gould was informed that WSCU’s Title IX coordinator had been notified of the situation and “and an official Title IX investigation will proceed.”
Documents produced by defendants also revealed that WSCU officials had recklessly presumed the Goulds’ versions of events were true and carelessly circulated the disparaging accusations, entirely disregarding their responsibility to investigate first or, at the very least, interview Mr. Johnson. For example, an August 3rd email to Ms. Gould from Ms. Gould’s former psychology professor Susan Coykendall referred to Johnson as “a douche bag,” and offered “to bring a complaint” on Gould’s behalf. Even more alarming is Ms. Coykendall’s email to Ms. Gould the following day, in which she suggested she could “let the English faculty know on the down low that one of their TAs is an asshole and to watch him,” adding, “If you want him to lose his job, however, i’d probably have to let someone know who you were and to some extent what happened … But if you want me to sort of make his life suck without him knowing why, I can probably get that accomplished!”
Third Amended Complaint
Mr. Johnson filed the latest version of his complaint in May, adding professor Susan Coykendall as a defendant. The eighty-two-page document asserts several Title IX causes of action for gender discrimination based on the defendants’ unfair, selective and biased investigation and adjudication of the Title IX proceedings. The complaint claims the defendants violated Mr. Johnson’s constitutional right to free speech by sanctioning him for “inappropriate behavior” based on his “Dear Onna Letter,” and violated his procedural due process rights by proceeding against him twice on the same allegations, denying him the right to effective counsel, inadequately training and supervising employees, and unfairness in the result-driven investigations and proceedings. Mr. Johnson also states causes of action for malicious prosecution and conspiracy.
In addition to compensatory and punitive damages, Johnson is asking the court to declare the defendants’ actions against him unconstitutional, expunge his disciplinary records and enjoin WSCU from continuing to employ unconstitutional disciplinary policies and procedures against its students.
Lawsuit Grinds to a Halt
The defendants have filed motions to dismiss Johnson’s complaint on several grounds, one of which claims the individual defendants are state officials who are entitled to qualified immunity for their discretionary actions performed in good faith in their official capacities.
Discovery has been stayed pending a ruling on the defendants’ immunity claims and, according to Mr. Johnson’s attorney Gregory Stross, his “motion for sanctions remains pending, unaddressed by the court.”
Despite the delay, Mr. Stross and his client are “adamant” about pursing sanctions, not only to compensate Mr. Johnson for his ordeal, but also to ensure other WSCU students are not affected by the defendants’ “self-righteousness,” and “belief that there will be no penalties for their having broken the rules.” As audacious and inexcusable as it was for Ms. Coykendall to disclose in emails her hastily drawn, unsubstantiated and offensive assessment of Mr. Johnson, we are certainly relieved that she provided Johnson with evidence of what really goes on underneath WSCU’s façade of open-mindedness, impartiality and tolerance. If Johnson is successful, at least these defendants will know who made their “life suck” and why.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained from the official United States District Court Colorado records in KEIFER JOHNSON vs. WESTERN STATE COLORADO UNIVERSITY et al, Civil Action No. 1:13-CV-02747-WJM-BNB,
Cynthia P Garrett is a California attorney and Board Member for Families Advocating Campus Equality.