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Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig is suing The New York Times over an interview about the MIT Media Lab accepting money from sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Lessig’s defamation suit covers a September 2019 article titled “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.” He claims the headline misrepresents his interview, where he condemns the donation, but says that “if you’re going to take the money, you damn well better make it anonymous.”
Lessig is the founder of Creative Commons and a longtime policy activist; he once ran for president on the promise to pass a single anti-corruption law and then resign. He’s also a friend of former MIT Media Lab president Joichi Ito. When Ito admitted last year to secretly receiving around $800,000 from Epstein, Lessig signed a supportive letter and argued that accepting secret donations was better than publicly laundering a criminal’s reputation — although he said taking Epstein’s money at all was wrong in retrospect.
Times reporter Nellie Bowles interviewed Lessig about the donations and appeared unimpressed by his reasoning. “It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying,” she wrote in the article’s opening paragraph. Lessig quickly dubbed the piece “clickbait defamation” by the Times. Now, he’s turned that accusation into an actual defamation complaint and launched it with a full-fledged multimedia campaign, including a website called “Lessig v. Clickbait Defamation” and a related podcast.
Lessig doesn’t dispute his direct quote. (It’s at the end of his interview with the Times, and it rebukes journalists who think “that somehow there’s something terrible about the anonymity — no! If you’re going to take the money, you damn well better make it anonymous.”) But he says the headline contradicts his broader statement that MIT shouldn’t take Epstein’s money at all. “It’s paraphrasing a line in the interview about the general rule that I advanced in the article” about donations, he tells The Verge — not a statement he was making about Epstein specifically.
Lessig is demanding financial damages from Bowles, The New York Times Company, Times business editor Ellen Pollock, and executive editor Dean Baquet — although the latter is confusingly called “Daniel Paquet” on the cover sheet.
Lessig accused the Times of “clickbait defamation”
The case hinges partly on an argument that modern news spreads through social media headlines, not full articles. In a blog post about the lawsuit, he complains that “offering a tweet-length proof that a perfectly tweetable headline is flatly false is not, it turns out, simple.” In the filing, he asserts that “defendants are fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait.”
It’s no secret that Twitter and Facebook users dunk on posts without reading articles, and the Times isn’t immune to writing headlines that obscure the news. Today’s complaint is fairly measured compared to several recent defamation cases — including an ongoing feud between Rep. Devin Nunes and a Twitter account impersonating his cow.
But legal expert Ken White, whose blog Popehat extensively covers defamation claims, isn’t convinced of Lessig’s argument. “The concept of carving out the clickbait headline and analyzing it in isolation fights with current law,” he says — courts will typically consider the full context of a statement. “I’m sympathetic, and hate clickbait headlines, but I don’t think this is the right vehicle to fight them.”
Lessig disagrees. “There’s an emerging line of authority that says that in the internet age, you’ve got to look at the headlines,” he says. “That rule might have made sense in the days when you had a single paper published, and you had it on your counter and read it. But it certainly doesn’t make sense in the age of Twitter and Facebook and the age of links separated from text.”
The Times, meanwhile, denies the accusations. “Senior editors reviewed the story after Professor Lessig complained and were satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements,” a spokesperson told The Verge. “We plan to defend against the claim vigorously.”