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Op-Ed: Our role in the unofficial conviction of Paul Nungesser


Back in the news this week is the story of “Carry That Weight,” known to the public as the product of a woman at Columbia standing up for her right—and the right of all women—to justice. But this time, we are hearing the side of the story that has been missing from the conversation thus far.

Paul Nungesser has spoken out in a Daily Beast article, explaining why he believes himself to be the true victim in the Emma Sulkowicz situation. The article, which releases Facebook messages shared between Sulkowicz and Nungesser dated after the alleged attack, seems to call Sulkowicz’s account of the incident into question.

These messages are evidence of nothing. They are neither an exoneration of Nungesser nor an indictment of Sulkowicz, if only because Nungesser was already exonerated and Sulkowicz has never been accused of any wrongdoing. The true question here is why the public so easily raced to convict Nungesser without the presentation of any real evidence. In fact, the most concrete account of the relationship between the two is the Facebook conversation that has only recently come to light. Until now, the media has fed upon the claims and spectacles produced by one side of the story.

It’s understandable. Sulkowicz’s account is compelling. Her story is harrowing, and her performance art is riveting—newsworthy, one might say. And it is, after all, the job of the media to document, right? But all that is being documented is one person’s point of view. The most careful news sources made sure to maintain the word “alleged” in their pieces on Sulkowicz’s project, but only after creating magazine covers portraying her as a female superhero, armed with a 50-pound mattress and the force of every feminist group in America behind her. It’s a powerful image, and not necessarily incorrect. Sulkowicz is undoubtedly a strong woman, and the stance against rape culture is an important one to take. But was this the best case with which to make that point? Were we, the public, sure enough about the events in question to make that judgment? Did the media give us a choice, or was Nungesser the scapegoat for the movement against rape on campus that’s been building steam for years?

The mistake we’ve all made has been substituting belief in an ideal with certainty about a specific case. There was never enough evidence presented to the public to expel Nungesser from school or convict him in court, so there should not have been enough to convict him in the media. No matter how fiercely we may have believed Sulkowicz, we just don’t know what happened that night. The university adjudication system, especially the concept of due process that is meant to protect all of us, failed Paul Nungesser, who was officially found innocent and yet still presumed guilty by the masses.

The possibility that Nungesser is innocent has, up until now, only been whispered from the sidelines, if entertained at all. What kind of person doesn’t believe a girl who says she’s been raped? Anti-feminists, misogynists, slut-shamers, and proponents of rape culture.

But the fear of being judged and labeled by the media has kept people from examining every facet of this case. The stance for due process has been obscured by the notion that if we don’t stand with Sulkowicz, we stand for rape.

Also found guilty by the public was the Columbia administration. Lacking a “preponderance of evidence” (the greater than 50 percent likelihood that an individual is guilty, and the University’s standard to convict), administrators dismissed the case against Nungesser. 51 percent is a far lower standard of certainty than the legal system requires to convict, and could not be met in the case of Sulkowicz versus Nungesser. Expecting belief in an argument without evidence is asking a lot. Expecting belief in an argument without evidence that could have serious ramifications on another’s life is unacceptable. Condemning an institution for upholding its judicial regulations for due process is inadmissible.

Universities are meant to educate, police are meant to prosecute, and the media is meant to document. We are meant to think. Process only the information that is available. Don’t reach for the most prevalent conclusion that exists in the media for fear of being labeled. Examine the evidence available, and perhaps you will see that the best approach to some cases is to maintain distance from judgment at all.

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