Final Bell

05.14.14

Someone Is Writing Lists of ‘Rapists’ on Columbia’s Walls

A growing sex abuse scandal at the Ivy League institution has taken a vigilante turn.

Earlier this month, after a string of sexual abuse accusations at Columbia University, the campus newspaper published an op-ed that asked, “What would you do if you found out someone you knew had definitively sexually assaulted someone?”

As if in response, an anonymous person or persons began writing a list of alleged rapists on Columbia’s walls.

“Sexual assault violators on campus” was the underlined label given to the first list, which appeared in the women’s bathroom in Hamilton Hall last Wednesday. Four names were on the list, which appeared to have been written by multiple people.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went up to Columbia, where a sea of exhausted students roamed the campus eating ice cream in between their final exams. In the bathroom in the Hamilton building, multiple stickers advertising The Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center were plastered on the walls—but no list. Sean Augustine, the editor of the Columbia Lion, told me janitors were taking down the lists almost as soon as they went up.

“These people who are writing the names are writing the names in a women’s bathroom, I think [because] they are trying to inform other women of these people who they felt [are] a danger to others on campus, and the fact that the university is doing a cover-up operation—it bothered me,” Augustine said.

Sexual assault is by no means a new issue on Columbia’s campus.

In January, Anna Bahr, then-managing editor of The Blue and White, Columbia’s magazine, wrote a gripping, deeply reported two-part series on the issue.

In April, 23 Columbia and Barnard students filed a federal complaint accusing the university of violating Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act.

This month, The New York Times told the story of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia junior who was forced, the publication reported, to tell a university panel, in detail, the logistics of a “painful sex act.” Her alleged attacker, Sulkowicz told the Times, had been accused by two other students—yet all of the accusations against him were dismissed.

“To the Columbia Community: Stay safe, protect and support each other, and always always always make sure to have sober, enthusiastic, continuous consent.”

In a statement, Robert Hornsby, a spokesman for the university, said: “To avoid chilling complainants from coming forward and to respect all parties involved, the University does not comment on the particulars of disciplinary proceedings regarding sexual misconduct. In addition, the University is mindful of the multiple federal laws that govern these matters...These laws and our constitutional values do not permit us to silence debate on the difficult issues being discussed.”

But if the comments sections of campus publications are any indication, reactions to the outing of the alleged rapists have been mixed. Some students view the list as a witch hunt, while others view it as a necessary—if extreme—step in the right direction.

The bathroom lists first came to light when the Columbia Lion, a relatively new publication, received a photo of one of them from an anonymous source. But before staff from the publication could get to the bathroom to see it for themselves, they reported, the list had been scrubbed off. (The source said the list had not even been up for 24 hours.) The Lion published the photo but blacked out the names of the accused.

The same list soon reappeared in the women’s bathroom of Alfred Lerner Hall, this time with the label “Rapists on campus.” The Lion reported that “by the time we arrived [an hour after receiving a tip] the bathrooms had already been scrubbed clean to remove all traces of the writing.” Augustine told me that a university official said they were treating the list like regular graffiti.

On Tuesday morning, two more lists appeared in the Butler Library women’s bathrooms. And a few hours later, fliers appeared with the list of names. On the fliers, one of the accused was called a “serial rapist,” while the other three were listed as having been “found ‘responsible’ by the University.” At the bottom of the page was the message: “To the Columbia Community: Stay safe, protect and support each other, and always always always make sure to have sober, enthusiastic, continuous consent.”

Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan reported on the incidents and included descriptions of the accused: “a musician, a prominent writer for a campus publication, and a varsity athlete.”

That “prominent writer” worked for Bwog—“Columbia’s preeminent campus blog”—which initially published an article critical of the lists. The article was then updated with a note informing readers that the content of the piece did not reflect the views of the staff.

On Tuesday night, Bwog released a “Statement of Conflict of Interest” announcing that the member of its staff whose name appeared on the list has been asked to resign immediately. “To have allowed this staff member to remain a part of Bwog would have, in the opinion of the editorial staff, been a conflict of interest, hampering our ability to accurately report on campus activism. More importantly, in the opinion of the editorial staff, we felt that allowing this staffer to continue his affiliation with Bwog would have tacitly endorsed a rape culture we so firmly stand against.”