In Focus: Northwestern graduate student sues professor for invasion of privacy, defamation following book release

May 22, 2017

A Northwestern graduate philosophy student filed a lawsuit Tuesday under the pseudonym Jane Doe against Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis and publishing house HarperCollins Publishers, LLC, following the April 4 release of Kipnis’ book, “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.”

The book is a critique of Northwestern’s Title IX procedures told through Kipnis’ experiences with the process. Kipnis also goes in-depth describing her interpretation of the cases of two students — Doe and an undergraduate student — who filed Title IX complaints against former Northwestern philosophy Prof. Peter Ludlow, claiming he had sexually assaulted them in separate incidents.

Doe is represented by attorneys Jennifer Salvatore and Julie Porter. She filed a complaint in March 2014 against Ludlow, alleging sexual assault.

Following an unfulfilled request to retract the book, Doe filed suit against Kipnis and HarperCollins on four counts: public disclosure of private facts, false light invasion of privacy, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says Doe is suing for compensatory and punitive damages, which are not specified, and to grant further relief as the court sees just and proper.

Doe deferred comment to Salvatore and Porter.

A representative from HarperCollins told The Daily in an email that the publishing house does not comment on pending litigation. Kipnis declined to comment following the lawsuit.

In an email to The New York Times responding to a request for comment on the lawsuit, Kipnis said, “I’d like to comment, but I can’t.”

‘False and damaging statements’

The lawsuit claims Kipnis’ book contains inaccuracies, some of which allegedly misrepresent facts about Doe. The book also publicizes private facts about Doe’s life, the suit alleges.

University spokesman Al Cubbage told The Daily that “Northwestern University is not a party to the lawsuit,” and that there is no University disciplinary action currently planned against Kipnis.

Doe’s attorneys allege in the suit that Kipnis “gratuitously discloses private and embarrassing details” about Doe’s personal life in the book as a way to defend Ludlow and attempt to “reframe him as the victim of malicious female students and a Title IX process run amok.”

“Our client was devastated and shocked to read the book,” Porter told The Daily. “This was a really painful chapter in her life to begin with, and she had moved through it the best that she could. … With the publication of the book, not only was the whole story out there again, but the story was false in the way that it was presented.”

The suit alleges that as a result of the book’s wide circulation, Kipnis and HarperCollins have “harmed” Doe’s reputation, career and education in addition to causing her to experience “economic and non-economic damages” such as mental anguish.

According to the suit, Doe has had to delay her entry into the academic job market by “at least one and possibly two academic years” as a result of “the firestorm of publicity and gossip” Kipnis’ book has generated in the field of philosophy academia.

Porter told The Daily that Kipnis’ book misrepresents Doe as a “serial Title IX filer,” who “was out to get a certain professor and went to the lengths of making up a false narrative to make it happen.”

The book’s portrayal of Doe is “absolutely not true,” Porter added. The lawsuit lists examples of what it calls “false and damaging statements,” including a claim Doe had previously filed a Title IX complaint before the one against Ludlow, a description of her as a “serial Title IX complainant” and an insinuation that she fabricated a sexual assault to seek revenge on Ludlow.

Salvatore told The Daily that Doe’s Title IX complaint against Ludlow was the first she had ever filed. Kipnis’ claim is based on a Title IX complaint against a student where Doe served as a witness but was not the one who filed, Salvatore said.

Kipnis told The Daily in an April 15 email that she had “firsthand information” — including copies of University documents on the case and an interview she conducted with the respondent of the case — that identify Doe as the complainant. Kipnis also said she spoke with Ludlow, who said Doe had told him she had filed the complaint.

Ludlow could not be reached for comment regarding Kipnis’ book and the subsequent lawsuit.

Salvatore refuted any insinuation Doe fabricated the sexual assault. Salvatore told The Daily that Kipnis suggested Doe had decided to file a Title IX complaint long after the alleged assault took place as a form of revenge against Ludlow. She said in reality, Doe never wanted to talk about any interactions with Ludlow, but did so only after encouragement from the University’s Title IX office.

Joan Slavin, Northwestern’s Title IX coordinator, deferred comment about the University’s Title IX process to Cubbage.

The lawsuit also states the book includes information that makes Doe easily identifiable by including physical descriptions. Though Kipnis used a pseudonym, the lawsuit says “it was obvious to many who Kipnis was writing about.”

In an April 14 interview, Kipnis told The Daily that if the students in the book are identifiable, it was not a result of the book, as both of their cases had already been discussed publicly online. She also said she thinks Title IX processes should be transparent “in the same way that court cases are transparent” to keep the processes accountable.

“With the names redacted, there’s no reason that the information shouldn’t be public,” Kipnis said.

Cubbage said in a May 10 email statement that the Title IX process is led by the University’s “core value of fairness while based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Education as well as applicable federal and state laws.”

“We act expeditiously, thoroughly and equitably as we maintain confidentiality, in order to fulfill justice for the alleged victims and respondents,” Cubbage said in the statement.

According to the lawsuit, on social media and in various professional blogs, including blogs “devoted to covering philosophy,” members of the academic philosophy community have discussed “Unwanted Advances” and publicly identified Doe by her name.

The lawsuit also states members of the academic and professional community have “opined online” that because of Kipnis’ book, Doe “will never get a job in her field.”

“The world of philosophy academia is a pretty small one,” Porter told The Daily. “These people all know each other and are certainly all aware of this case. The narrative that Laura Kipnis spun and that HarperCollins published is one that makes our client, and was intended to make our client, look like a liar (and) look like someone who was manipulative and deceptive.”


Kipnis’ Title IX experience

The lawsuit is not the first interaction between Doe and Kipnis.

Following Doe’s complaint against Ludlow, Kipnis wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the University’s ban on romantic and sexual relationships between faculty and students. Doe and another graduate student filed Title IX retaliation complaints in March 2015 in response to Kipnis’ article.

According to copies of the complaints acquired by The Daily at the time, the graduate students filed the complaints against Kipnis stating her article created a hostile environment by giving an inaccurate and misleading description of the two students who had filed complaints against Ludlow. The retaliation complaints also said Kipnis’ article created a “chilling effect” that discouraged people from filing Title IX complaints in the future.

In late Spring Quarter 2015, lawyers hired by the University found that Kipnis had not violated Title IX by writing the article.

An ad hoc committee on academic freedom composed of four Northwestern professors presented a report to Faculty Senate on March 1 this year examining the separate cases of Kipnis and former bioethics Prof. Alice Dreger, who resigned following a confrontation with the administration over the publication of an article in an academic journal of which she was a guest editor.

The report said the University had changed its Title IX policy following Kipnis’ case, stating the Title IX Office may close a case of alleged misconduct if the Title IX coordinator deems there is insufficient information following an initial inquiry into the report. The committee’s report states if this policy had been in place at the time of Kipnis’ case, “it is likely that no investigation would have taken place.”

Though the report was presented to Faculty Senate, it was never voted on, nor did it ever receive Senate’s endorsement, Faculty Senate president Laurie Zoloth said in an email to The Daily at the time.

Kipnis wrote in her book that the Chronicle essay was more than 5,000 words, but initially only seven were about Doe: “a former grad student he previously dated.” She wrote that the Chronicle later extended the sentence to qualify that they had previously dated according to Ludlow’s complaint. Kipnis also acknowledges that labeling Doe as a former student was inaccurate.

In “Unwanted Advances,” Kipnis characterizes the Title IX complaint as an attack on her academic freedom.

“It was trying to expand Title IX to apply to an essay, where I think most people thought that was in itself kind of scandalous because of its encroachments on academic freedom and free speech,” Kipnis told The Daily in April.

According to the lawsuit, the basis of the Title IX complaint against Kipnis was that she had “misrepresented certain facts about (Doe’s) complaint and suggested that the complaint brought against Ludlow lacked merit.”

One of the graduate students who filed a complaint against Kipnis requested the correction of what she said were factual inaccuracies, according to an email from the student to Kipnis obtained by The Daily. Kipnis responded to the email saying, “The facts in the piece were drawn from news reports and court documents, though as I made clear — and understand you to be saying — some of those facts are in dispute.”

According to a memorandum obtained by The Daily that had been added to Kipnis’ investigation file, Doe was hopeful that “maybe the article would be corrected, but was devastated when Kipnis refused.”

Graphic by Max Schuman/Daily Senior Staffer

Kipnis begins own investigation

In the April interview, Kipnis told The Daily that she had little knowledge of how the Title IX process worked before the Title IX investigation was launched against her. Kipnis published another article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 29, 2015, titled “My Title IX Inquisition,” detailing her experience with the University’s Title IX process.

Kipnis told The Daily she became “inundated” with emails from others who had gone through Title IX processes, piquing her interest to do research into Title IX investigations. Kipnis said she interviewed several parties of Title IX investigations and was contacted by Ludlow’s lawyer to be a faculty support person in his dismissal hearing.

Before the University could issue a formal decision on Ludlow’s continued employment, Ludlow resigned and later moved to Mexico. In the book, Kipnis wrote that Ludlow had “pretty much lost everything.” As a result of the publicity about the charges against him, Ludlow lost a job offer at Rutgers University and two book contracts, becoming a “professional pariah,” she wrote.

Following a Title IX investigation regarding the complaint against Ludlow filed by the then-undergraduate student, the University found Ludlow in violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policy and imposed several disciplinary sanctions and other corrective actions against him.

Ludlow repeatedly denied the sexual assault allegations against him. He directly denies in Kipnis’ book the sexual acts he was accused of committing against Doe and the other student who filed a complaint against him.

In April, Kipnis told The Daily she eventually met Ludlow in Mexico and interviewed him about his experiences, ultimately including his anecdotes in the book. Kipnis also cites several emails and text message conversations she obtained from Ludlow between him and the students in her book.

The lawsuit alleges Kipnis’ book is a public disclosure of private facts, citing Kipnis’ use of “confidential University records” from the investigation of Doe’s Title IX complaint against Ludlow.

Because Ludlow resigned, he never signed a confidentiality agreement with the University, Kipnis told The Daily in April. After his resignation, Ludlow gave Kipnis the files regarding his Title IX case, which she said gave an “in-depth” look at the processes he had been through.

“He was free to pass on his information to anyone, any journalist or writer, and I was playing that role there,” Kipnis said. “So no, I don’t believe that I breached confidentiality because there was no confidentiality agreement.”

The lawsuit states the information publicized in the book was “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

Writing a ‘counterhistory’

Kipnis told The Daily in April she felt there was a lot of “gender bias” in the Title IX process, which she characterized in her book as “kangaroo courts.” The book’s fourth chapter, titled “F*** Confidentiality,” criticizes Title IX investigations for being able to avoid accountability through claims of respecting pursuants’ confidentiality rights.

The book was intended as a “counterhistory” to what was recorded when the University investigated the allegations against Ludlow, Kipnis told The Daily. She said Title IX officers are in effect public officials because they represent and enforce government policy, and that citizens have the right to question how policies are implemented.

“Everyone on campus should be far more aware of how these decisions are being made and the secret judicial process that is taking place,” Kipnis said.

In her book, Kipnis, who identifies as a feminist, also criticizes contemporary views common on college campuses concerning consent and sexual relations between faculty and students. A quote featured on the cover says, “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.” Kipnis argues the current mechanism barring student-professor relationships “infantilizes” students and plays to a “fairytale” trope of “endangered damsels” instead of independent women.

“I absolutely believe there are sexual harassers on campus, and bona fide harassers should be fired,” Kipnis wrote. “Then there’s bona fide sexual hysteria, the fantasy that predators are lurking around every corner.”

The lawsuit, however, alleges the book was written as a retaliation against Doe for filing the Title IX complaint against Kipnis.

According to the lawsuit, Doe does not have a problem with Kipnis expressing critiques of the Title IX process, but claims the book makes false statements and includes “gratuitous private facts” about Doe’s personal life that she never wanted publicized.

“Laura Kipnis was writing about Title IX and about her views on the process, and that is 100 percent fine,” said Porter, one of the lawyers representing Doe. “But when she chose to take our client’s life and intersperse that through her book … she had a responsibility to ensure what she was writing about was true. And in many respects, it wasn’t true.”

Kipnis told The Daily in April that she wanted to balance the story by offering Ludlow’s perspective, which she said was underrepresented in the Title IX investigation. She said she hoped to add more nuance to the public record, which she said was unfairly biased toward the complainants.

“The students’ account has been the official account,” Kipnis said. “History is written by the victors. They’ve been the victors in this.”

A critical response

Kipnis’ book has garnered positive reviews in the literary community, with a review from Publishers Weekly commending it as a “courageous, thought-provoking polemic.”

In an April 5 review, New York Times book critic Jennifer Senior described the book as a “necessary” critique of campus culture, and wrote that Kipnis “never minimizes the devastating consequences of sexual violence.”

“It is invigorating and irritating, astute and facile, rigorous and flippant, fair-minded and score-settling, practical and hyperbolic, and maybe a dozen other neurotically contradictory things,” Senior wrote. “(Few) people have taken on the excesses of university culture with the brio that Kipnis has. Her anger gives her argument the energy of a live cable.”

Kipnis has also been interviewed and featured in The New Yorker, National Public Radio, Mother Jones and several other publications regarding her book.

But on Northwestern’s campus, the book was met with criticism, many saying it inappropriately publicized students’ private sexual experiences. Professors and several students decried the book as one-sided and insufficiently researched.

A letter signed by the majority of the Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association and published in The Daily called the book “reckless, unfounded speculation.”

On April 14, Philosophy Prof. Jennifer Lackey posted a public Facebook status, co-signed by philosophy department chair Prof. Sandy Goldberg, criticizing the book and its portrayal of Doe.

“We want to make clear that we believe that the characterization of our student as portrayed in the book is grossly inaccurate,” the status said. “We stand by our student as a person of substantial character and high integrity, in addition to being an extraordinarily talented philosopher.”

In a public Facebook comment to the status, Kipnis said all of the information in her book was “copiously documented” and based off of public records and copies of “some 2,000” text messages and emails between Ludlow and Doe.

“There is indeed strong evidence for my assertions, which is why I decline to withdraw any of them,” Kipnis wrote.

The lawsuit claims some of the information Kipnis possessed contradicted Ludlow’s narrative, but Kipnis chose not to publish it. The suit also alleges neither Kipnis nor HarperCollins ever sought to determine if the text messages were “authentic, complete, or presented in context.”

In addition to Doe, Kipnis’ book refers to various people including Doe’s faculty adviser, a graduate student close to Doe and the then-undergraduate student who also filed a complaint against Ludlow. Although most identities are disguised with the use of pseudonyms, some said they felt they were easily identifiable based on information provided in the book.

Slavin, NU’s Title IX coordinator, and Southern Connecticut State University philosophy Prof. Heidi Lockwood are mentioned by their real names.

Some who are mentioned in the book said Kipnis did not reach out for comment before publication. The lawsuit states Kipnis and HarperCollins both did not reach out to Doe to fact check the book’s content or ask her for permission to publish the “highly personal, embarrassing and damaging information about her.”

Kipnis told The Daily in April she did not reach out to those people because she was “pretty confident” that no one would have been willing to talk to her.

However, Salvatore said she thought if Doe had known what was being written about her, she “absolutely” would have “wanted to correct the record.”

Porter told The Daily it was “irresponsible” and “reckless” for Kipnis to have assumed Doe would not have spoken with her while writing the book.

“It’s unconscionable,” Porter said.

Lockwood told The Daily she felt “deeply violated” by Kipnis’ book, which she said exposed intimate details she had not previously discussed publicly about an alleged instance of inappropriate contact by an adviser at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lockwood said she “absolutely” would have agreed to speak with Kipnis had she reached out.

“Certainly there’s no legal obligation to reach out,” Lockwood said, “but there’s a professional obligation as a journalist and a writer, and there’s a moral obligation as somebody who’s discussing non-public information about an incident that obviously I’ve chosen not to discuss publicly.”

Kipnis said in April the information she used came from documents given to her by Ludlow, and that the statements were on the record.

“Their statements were part of the documents that I had access to,” she said. “It didn’t seem necessary for the purposes of the book to reconfirm those statements to me.”

Polemic, not journalism

Kipnis commented on Lackey’s Facebook status that the book was mostly her opinion.

“It’s a polemic, not journalism,” Kipnis wrote in the thread. “It’s based on reporting, and a close reading of the available documents, but the heart of the book is my interpretation of that material.”

Porter told The Daily she and her client “reject” Kipnis’ defense that the book is a polemic. Doe, she said, was used by Kipnis “as a case study,” and the information about Doe’s relationship with Ludlow was presented “in a very singular light as if it were factually true.”

“To call it a polemic doesn’t mean that there’s no responsibility for being factually truthful when you are citing facts as truth,” Porter said.

Porter said Doe was “devastated and shocked” to read “Unwanted Advances,” as it not only made her relive a difficult period of her life, but also did so publicly.

Now, Porter said, Doe finds herself needing to defend her reputation and faces uncertainty in her career prospects.

“Filing a lawsuit was a step she had to take to defend herself and to set the record straight,” Porter said.

This story was updated to clarify that Kipnis does not believe she presented any incorrect facts in her book.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @_allysonchiu

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @matthewchoi2018