The lawsuit filed by Northwestern Title IX accuser “Nola Hartley” against best-selling author Laura Kipnis (Unwanted Advances) has attracted substantial attention from both the mainstream media and from commentators; the two best pieces (taking differing approaches to the lawsuit’s merits) come from Robby Soave and Michelle Goldberg. The Kipnis book looks primarily at four cases—one at Colorado and three at Northwestern: Kipnis’ own Title IX witch hunt, and two cases involving former professor Peter Ludlow.
One case involving Ludlow (who seems to be an extremely unsympathetic figure) and an undergraduate student almost certainly ended wrongly; as presented by Kipnis, while Ludlow used horrible judgment, the accuser was unreliable. The second case, which involved Ludlow and a graduate student in his department, prompted the Title IX complaint against Kipnis and is also the subject of the lawsuit.
Three items particularly struck me from Hartley’s lawsuit—which, if anything, makes Kipnis look even more sympathetic than the Title IX allegation Hartley previously filed against Kipnis. The first involved Hartley’s peculiar definition of her own credibility. Northwestern’s investigator, the lawsuit asserts, found Hartley “extremely credible,” and, therefore, by implication, Kipnis should have, too.
Yet Northwestern’s own investigation ultimately did not proceed with the most explosive claim in the case: that Ludlow had sexually assaulted the Ph.D. student. The lawsuit massages this inconvenient fact by asserting that the investigator “found that she did not have enough evidence to determine whether or not a sexual assault had occurred.”
But using the preponderance of evidence standard, “not enough evidence” means that Northwestern’s own investigation deemed Ludlow, not Hartley, more credible on this critical point. (It probably helped that Ludlow was able to show he slept elsewhere on the night in question.) So Hartley is the “extremely credible” accuser whose central allegation even Northwestern didn’t deem credible.
Second, the lawsuit claims that Kipnis inaccurately portrayed the Hartley-Ludlow relationship. It wasn’t, Hartley asserts, the romantic fling that a thousand text messages and emails between the two implied. Kipnis, according to the lawsuit, quoted these text messages out of context. (How she did so must remain a mystery; the lawsuit doesn’t mention even one out-of-context text.)
Instead, according to Hartley, Ludlow all but groomed her from the start, inappropriately pressuring her to have a relationship with him in an almost textbook case of sexual harassment. The evidence she presents? Three conversations—each of which, conveniently, seem to have lacked any witnesses—in spring 2011, mid-fall 2011, and at an indeterminate date in late 2011.
It’s possible that Kipnis failed to appreciate that the Hartley-Ludlow relationship can best be reconstructed not by thousands of Hartley’s own words from the time, but instead by three witness-free conversations as Hartley (who the lawsuit describes as “emotionally intimate” with Ludlow) now remembers them. I doubt, however, any court would agree with Hartley on this point.
Third, multiple elements of the lawsuit make Hartley look (to be charitable) odd. She claims, for instance, that Kipnis’ book presented her in a “false light” as “litigious.” And her response to this problem is to sue over Kipnis’ interpretation of events? As part of her grooming claim, she asserts that Ludlow “enrolled” in a seminar, taught by another professor, that she took in her first year as a Ph.D. student. A senior professor “enrolled” in another professor’s class?
Hartley complains that Kipnis’ book “needlessly devotes an entire chapter to Plaintiff.” And the federal court system is the appropriate venue for resolving disputes over an author’s editorial choices? That chapter, Hartley continues, contains “facts never before publicized, and facts that Plaintiff did not want to be publicized,” thereby providing “far more detail” about the Hartley-Ludlow relationship than the “bits and pieces” previously in the public domain. (Again: these descriptions of the Kipnis research effort are Hartley’s.)
Perhaps Hartley didn’t want some of the “facts” Kipnis uncovered to see the light of day—Northwestern’s secret process doubtless was preferable to her—but it’s hard to see the merit in a lawsuit downplaying the importance of “facts” about a widely-publicized case on a widely-publicized issue, and instead seeming to prefer that the public rely on “bits and pieces” of information.
Goldberg criticizes Kipnis for failing to ask Hartley for a comment before the book went to press. Kipnis should have done so if only to avoid this criticism—but there seems to be no chance Hartley would have agreed to speak with her. That said, the book extensively presents Hartley’s own words and actions (as even the lawsuit concedes), primarily by using text messages written by Hartley to Ludlow.
Given that the Kipnis book describes in some detail the claims Hartley presented to Northwestern, gathered from documents (including Northwestern’s Title IX report) obtained by Kipnis in her research, I don’t agree with Goldberg’s assertion that “there’s no indication [Kipnis] ever sought to hear” Hartley’s version of events.
My approach to writing about this issue is to post everything—all documents that I have used in writing about sexual assault and due process, either at Minding the Campus or in the new book, are available on my website. It’s true that Kipnis hasn’t posted the documents from the cases about which she writes. But the lawsuit’s implication that she simply chatted with Ludlow and then accepted his version of events is absurd.
Beyond the exaggerated claims, the baseline premise of the lawsuit is a chilling one: that while the Ph.D. student purportedly “takes no issue with [Kipnis’] choice to write on this topic,” Hartley, as a Title IX accuser, some of whose claims Northwestern accepted, should have a veto power over which “facts” Kipnis can present. This argument should raise grave concerns.-