Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and Brookline resident, charges the New York Times committed "clickbait defamation" in a headline and lead paragraph that made it sound he was condoning MIT professors and administrators taking money from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein when, he says, he wasn't.
At issue is a Sept. 19, 2019 Times headline: A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If you Take Epstein's Money, Do It in Secret.
In his complaint, filed today in US District Court in Boston, Lessig says that the point of the essay he wrote on Epstein and the MIT Media Lab, which the Times used as the focus of its article, was that while it was wrong for MIT types to take money from a pedophile, it was unfair for the media and MIT to single out Media Lab head Joi Ito because MIT had given him its OK to do so.
Lessig said he did not write in his essay that Ito and others should have taken the money in secret. He acknowledged he once thought that would be OK, and had told his friend Ito that, but that by the time he wrote his essay last year, he had come to realize that was a mistake and that taking money from somebody like Epstein was wrong, and that his essay expressed that.
Lessig said the response to the Times headline was pretty immediate:
Defendants' story was met with mass outrage from campuses in Cambridge and Somerville, in Lessig's nationwide social media following, by countless victims of sexual assault, and in the infinite depths of the "Twittersphere." Within hours, Lessig became associated with the notoriety surrounding the Epstein scandal, and the community that quietly or silently tolerated such monstrosity. ...
Lessig is a nationally prominent professor and legal scholar with a large social media following. At the time Defendants published their false and defamatory story he was poised to spearhead a national dialogue dedicated to developing best standards applicable to the acceptance and retention of donations from individuals and corporations who engage in wrongdoing. Defendants' publication of their false and defamatory headline and lede has destroyed those efforts and has harmed Lessig's reputation more generally.
The complaint charges the Times refused to change the headline, because it was happy to "clickbait" readers:
Defendant's actions here are part of a growing journalistic culture of clickbaiting; the use of a shocking headline and/or lede to entice readers to click on a particular article, irrespective of the truth of a headline. Defendants are fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait and that their takeaway concerning the target of the headline is limited to what they read in the headline. As a results, the use of this tactic represents a uniquely troubling media practice as it relates to the harm and destruction of the reputation of the target of the clickbait.
Lessig is seeking enough damages to make the Times think long and hard about what it did.
Some at MIT gladly prostrated themselves to Jeffrey Epstein on theory money from bad people can be put to good use, report finds