Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig sued the New York Times for defamation on Monday, claiming a story about Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT that referenced Lessig amounted to “clickbait.”
The story in question was published on Sept. 14, 2019 under the headline, “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.”
Its lede, or introduction, read, “It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying.”
The lawsuit, filed in Massachusetts, states, “Defendants’ 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 the 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.”
It also states that Lessig asked the paper to change the headline and lede, but his request was not granted.
In a Medium blog post published concurrently with the lawsuit, Lessig contended that an essay he wrote, which was the central conversation piece for the interview the Times’ story was based on, calls soliciting money from convicted sex offenders a “mistake.” Lessig argues that the Times’ headline suggests the exact opposite.
His essay argued if institutions take money from such individuals, the donors should be anonymous. He added that the “mistake” he wrote about would result in “the kind of harm it would trigger in both victims and women generally.”
Lessig says the story has harmed his reputation and efforts to start a dialogue on best practices when accepting donations from individuals or corporations who have engaged in wrongdoing. He is seeking a trial by jury.
A Times spokesperson told TheWrap that “senior editors reviewed the story after Professor Lessig complained and were satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements. We plan to defend against the claim vigorously.”
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