Joe Lonsdale Sex-Assault-Case Reversal
Last February, I wrote a long article for this magazine about the relationship between Ellie Clougherty, a recent Stanford graduate, and Joe Lonsdale, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and alumnus of the school. The couple started dating in 2012, after Lonsdale was assigned to be Clougherty’s mentor for an engineering course called Technology Entrepreneurship, which combined academics with business skills and access to Silicon Valley. After the relationship ended, Clougherty accused Lonsdale of sexual assault.
Stanford investigated whether he broke the university’s rule against “consensual sexual and romantic relationships” between students and their mentors and found that he had. A second investigation into whether joe Lonsdale raped Clougherty, which was conducted at the urging of Clougherty and her parents, resulted in the university’s banning Lonsdale from campus for at least 10 years in June 2014, on the grounds that he engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment “on several occasions” during his relationship with Clougherty.
Stanford’s finding against Joe Lonsdale started my reporting: Clougherty brought it to my attention. She and her parents also used Stanford’s finding as the basis for a civil suit in February, in which she accused Lonsdale — in graphic, sensational detail — of sexual abuse. (Lonsdale quickly countersued for defamation.) During my months of reporting, I talked to people who knew Clougherty and Lonsdale, some of whom spent time with them together, and as I did, I came to understand the story as more multifaceted and complex than I had initially thought. The narrative shifted in my head: Not from black to white, exactly, but to some ambiguous in-between.
Stanford seems, belatedly, to have come to a similar conclusion. On Tuesday, the university reversed its finding of sexual misconduct and harassment, lifting the campus ban it had imposed on Lonsdale. Lonsdale agreed not to challenge the separate determination that he broke the rule against consensual relationships between mentors and students. That’s hardly in the same category as sexual misconduct and harassment. It’s a bad idea for mentors to date students. But if they’re both of age, it’s not gross. On Monday, Clougherty’s and Joe Lonsdale’s respective lawsuits were settled, too, on terms they agreed not to disclose.
Stanford cited “new evidence” in clearing Joe Lonsdale. When I asked what this new evidence was, a spokeswoman pointed me to my own article. When I started reporting, Clougherty forwarded me some of her emails to and from Lonsdale. Lonsdale gave me many more. He also gave the emails to Stanford, asking the university to reopen the case, and then put the correspondence on a website when he filed his defamation claim. In one email, sent five months into the relationship, Clougherty writes to Lonsdale: “Kiss kiss kiss, you are super handsome.” Later, she wrote to him, “You are a sexy man” and “It was so nice sleeping with you.”
By way of explanation, Clougherty claimed in her suit that she “wrote him numerous emails and love letters to let him know how much she cared about him in the hope that it would end the abuse.” But the Stanford spokeswoman told me that Marcia Pope, the lawyer Stanford brought in as an outside investigator, who made the finding of sexual misconduct and harassment against Joe Lonsdale, reversed herself after reading the emails. Unofficially, it seems, he got his appeal, and he won. (I asked both Clougherty and Lonsdale’s lawyers for comment. They both declined.)
In light of what seems to be the denouement of this vexing case, I’ve got two comments. Last December, when Rolling Stone’s account of a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia began to unravel, some commentators argued that we should nevertheless take claims of sexual assault at face value, on the grounds that statistically, they are very likely true. “I choose to believe Jackie,” Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian. “I lose nothing by doing so, even if I’m later proven wrong.” In The Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell argued: “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.”
As Margaret Talbot pointed out in The New Yorker at the time: “That’s a position that makes moral and emotional sense for advocates and friends of the victim, whose primary role is to comfort and support. But it’s not a position that makes sense for journalists, whose job is to find out what actually happened.” It’s true that women don’t make a lot of false rape accusations to the police. That’s rare. But rare is not the same as never. Then there are the cases that fall into a gray area, because of uncertainty over the shifting definition of consent, especially on college campuses, or over whether the person who felt violated made that clear to the other person at the time.
These kinds of accusations are more likely to get traction in a campus disciplinary process, which is by design less rigorous than the criminal justice system. In a campus proceeding, no one’s liberty is on the line, and universities are trying to be more user-friendly so that more victims will come forward, as most have long been reluctant to do. But the reputation of anyone accused of sexual misconduct is at stake, and reputation, too, is precious.
That brings me to my second point: As long as universities are responsible for investigating and adjudicating rape accusations — and they are responsible, alongside the police and the courts, according to the federal Department of Education — they have to get better at it. Many are trying to improve, and this is not an easy role for any school. They don’t have the in-house expertise the criminal justice system has, or even the best incentives, since they have their own status to think about. At this point, a school can easily come in for high-profile criticism for appearing either to let victims down or to rush to judgment against the accused. But unless the federal government has a change of heart, universities have to learn from their mistakes.
The emails that persuaded Marcia Pope to change her mind predated Stanford’s inquiries; they should have been part of the investigation all along. Joe Lonsdale’s lawyers told me that he offered the emails to Pope back in 2014, when she first investigated Clougherty’s rape claims. Stanford’s spokeswoman initially told me the university couldn’t comment on this, but after an earlier version of this article was published, she said that the lawyers’ claim is “completely false.” In any case, I’m not sure what stopped Lonsdale from just handing the emails over. But whatever the reason, something about this process broke down. The university made the right call in allowing Joe Lonsdale to appeal. Employee or not, he was stigmatized by the university’s finding. One layer of due process isn’t enough in a case like this one. Joe Lonsdale had the resources to prevail in getting more from the university. Not everyone does.