Harvard Law professor sues New York Times, alleging 'clickbait defamation'

Professor says he has been subjected to ‘endless attacks,’  in person and online

By Kris Olson
BridgeTower Media Newswires
BOSTON, MA — Seeking redress for what he calls “clickbait defamation,” Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig filed a lawsuit against the New York Times in federal District Court on Jan. 13.

The lawsuit relates to a Q&A piece the Times published after Lessig wrote a 3,500-word essay on the website Medium, arguing that his friend, Joichi Ito, who resigned as the director of the MIT Media Lab, had been unfairly scapegoated in the scandal over the donations that MIT had accepted from accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

In another Medium post published concurrently with the filing of the suit, Lessig explains that the headline and introduction of the Times story are simply “false.”

He contrasts the language in his essay, in which he twice calls the acceptance of Epstein’s donations a “mistake,” to the way the Times characterized his position in the headline: “If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.”

The intro goes on to state, “It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying.”

Lessig says that since the Times piece was published, he has been subjected to “endless attacks,” both in person and online.

Lessig says he expected the Times to accede quickly to his request to correct the two allegedly false and defamatory statements, but instead “was astonished when they not only refused to fix the mistake, but doubled down on the absurdity of their justifications.”

One of those justifications, he says, is that because Lessig was supporting Ito, he was therefore supporting what he did.

“So if the Times criticizes the assassination of Suleimani does that mean the Times supports what Suleimani did?” he writes.

Lessig says that in pursuit of “the incentives of journalism in the Internet age” — “drive eyeballs to your articles, so you can drive advertising revenue to your bottom line” — the Times crossed the line.

“I still can’t believe truth alone was not a sufficient incentive for the Times to correct its false statements,” he writes. “But so be it. A suit like this might complement the incentives for truth.”

Lessig is being represented by Howard M. Cooper and Tara D. Dunn, of Todd & Weld in Boston.

Lessig has also created a website related to the lawsuit, clickbaitdefamation.org, which includes a link to a podcast series, “The Law, such as it is,” that Lessig has launched with his case against the Times as its first subject.