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Is Laura Kipnis’s new book an act of retaliation?

A lawsuit against the Northwestern professor alleges that she inflicted harm on one of her subjects.

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Kipnis during her appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival - BEN GONZALEZ
  • Ben Gonzalez
  • Kipnis during her appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival

The folks at the Chicago Humanities Festival couldn't have known, when they booked author Laura Kipnis for a May 24 event at the Studebaker Theater, just how topical her subject would be.

They'd have expected controversy. Kipnis's new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (published in April), promised a blistering critique of Title IX procedures, contemporary feminism, and the sexual climate on American campuses.

But they had to be surprised by the extra frisson of the lawsuit filed against Kipnis and the publisher, HarperCollins, the week before the event. The suit claims, among other things, that the book was an act of retaliation.

Unwanted Advances focuses on several sexual harassment investigations at Northwestern University, where Kipnis, a cultural critic, teaches in the Department of Radio/Television/Film. The original target of the investigations was another Northwestern faculty member, star philosophy professor Peter Ludlow (who has since resigned). Kipnis wrote an essay about Ludlow's situation for the Chronicle of Higher Education and promptly became a Title IX target herself, charged, she says, with creating a hostile environment by publishing the piece.

Ludlow's investigations stemmed from relationships he had with two Northwestern students. The more notorious of the two was a single outing with a 19-year-old freshman who wound up spending the night with him in his bed. She claimed later that the then-55-year-old professor had forced her to get drunk and groped her.

It's not this professor-as-frat-boy story that's at issue, however—it's a three-month-or-so-long relationship Ludlow had with a 25-year-old graduate student Kipnis refers to by a pseudonym in Unwanted Advances. In the lawsuit, the student is Jane Doe. She also happens to be one of two students who filed the Title IX complaints against Kipnis.

Onstage at the Studebaker, Kipnis deflected questions about the case. "When you're being sued, if you talk about it, you can get sued some more," she said. If it was a source of stress it didn't show. But the issues raised by it are feeding new buzz and broadening the controversy.

Did Kipnis and her publisher, as the lawsuit charges, invade Jane Doe's privacy, defame her, misrepresent facts, and intentionally inflict emotional distress on her? Did they do this by referring to a previous relationship she'd allegedly had with a married professor? By publishing some of (according to Kipnis's count) 2,000 often affectionate e-mails between Doe and Ludlow? By suggesting that they'd had a dating relationship?

According to the complaint, Unwanted Advances also insinuates that Doe is a liar and jeopardizes her academic career by characterizing her as a "serial Title IX filer." As for the pseudonym: Doe claims that references in the book to her appearance and events cited make her easily recognizable to people in her field.

So Kipnis can't talk about the lawsuit (and HarperCollins says it doesn't comment on pending litigation). But her readers can (and are)—among them, another provocative academic, University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter, who's written about both the book and the case on his Leiter Reports blog. He shared his assessment in a phone interview.

"There are four claims," Leiter says. "Intentional infliction of emotional distress, publication of private facts, portrayal of the plaintiff in a false light, and defamation." In his opinion, "The big obstacle on the false light and defamation claims is going to be that [Doe] wasn't named in the book. Publication of private facts can be justified if the matter [in this case, the fairness of the Northwestern proceedings] is newsworthy."

And intentional infliction of emotional distress? "The general standard is the facts reported have to be shocking to a reasonable person, and the conduct of the defendant has to be outrageous or shocking as well," Leiter says. "The defendants are going to argue that this was an effort to report on a subject that has been in the national spotlight for a number of years now."

Leiter thinks that makes emotional distress "probably the least strong claim." The others, "if they survive a motion to dismiss, will be factual questions for a jury."

Doe's attorney, Evanston-based Julie B. Porter, said on the phone last week: "We have no objection to Laura Kipnis or anyone exploring Title IX's reach and writing about the way it's being implemented. But for her to use our client and her life and private pains as a way to tell that story, not only without her permission, but without even checking to be sure the facts she relied on were true, is just plain wrong. It's been devastating for our client to have a professor at her own university do something like this."  v

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