David Epstein Columbia Prof Incest Charges Raises Questions

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Reports of the charges against David Epstein circulated news and gossip sites last fall. (Credit: Gawker, screenshot)

David Epstein, political science professor at Columbia University, was arrested last December for having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. He was charged at the time with Incest in the 3rd degree, but he pled guilty to a lesser charge of attempted incest in the third degree on May 11, 2011.

The Columbia Spectator and Huffington Post, among others, reported on his arrest last December for having what was said to be a three-year sexual relationship with his daughter, 24 years old at the time of reporting.

At first, this story reminded me of the reports of adult grade school teachers who were arrested for allegedly sleeping with their students.The Epstein scandal felt more like something sensational that mostly had value as gossip rather than informative news, despite the serious issues it brought up about consent and sexual abuse and the nature of such a relationship, if it were true. The posting of his name and picture on websites at the time gave me pause to wonder if it was responsible to report a story such as this, without something more. There was still the possibility that, if untrue, his social and professional life, as well as that of his daughter’s, would most likely be severely damaged if not destroyed altogether.

I imagined what his daughter’s life would be like if the allegations were not true, or will be like in this case since he has admitted to attempting the act. Imagine trying to maintain a social life or even a work life if something like this got out. I also considered how the media coverage could affect the outcome of a court case.

Then David Epstein pled guilty.

The original intent of this op-ed was to ask the question if such misconduct stories should be reported without sufficient evidence, an admission of guilt, or a sentence. In the interests of the reputation of a potentially innocent person as well as the child or student in question perhaps something like this should have been shelved.

Reality made me realize that in addition to questioning the value and ramifications of reported allegations I had to remember to consider what really happened and what was the purpose of reporting that. Keeping up with the case beyond the initial reports, I learned he pled guilty to a lesser related charge.

I still believe, despite (and because of) his guilt, that in general there is a value in perhaps delaying reporting in the absence of some kind of verifiable fact, in the face of allegations that may or may not be true and in following through to the results of said story. In the end, at least for me, either it happened or it did not happen and if it did not I have a responsibility to make sure I am reporting in full consideration of the available facts and the information to come.

And let’s not forget that this story brings up important issues on the nature of such a parent-child relationship. Can such a relationship truly be consensual? Is it an abusive act by the parent regardless of the age of the child? Have we opened up a useful conversation about these issues or just entertained ourselves with the transgressions and misfortunes of others?

I originally intended to not mention David Epstein’s name but rather use generalizations. However, since he did plead guilty, that point seems moot. Of course, now that we have the plea that confirms the charge, what do we do next time?


Stephan Lherisson is a graduate of New York University’s Print Journalism program. He was previously published in NYU’s Washington Square News and on Alternet.  He is currently an independent writer.

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David Epstein Columbia Professor Incest Charges Raises Questions

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