More than five months after his death behind bars, Jeffrey Epstein continues to spark controversy — and legal battles. On Monday, Lawrence Lessig, a prominent law professor at Harvard University, filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts against The New York Times for publishing what he describes as “clickbait defamation” against him in an Epstein-focused story.
On Sept. 14, just over a month after Epstein was found dead in his prison cell by self-strangulation after being charged with sex trafficking of minors, The New York Times published a story on Epstein’s donations to M.I.T. titled, “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.” The story, which offers “a conversation with Lawrence Lessig about Jeffrey Epstein, M.I.T. and reputation laundering,” begins:
It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying.
Mr. Lessig is a friend of Joichi Ito, who resigned as the director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, as well as from the boards of The New York Times Company and other organizations, after it was revealed that he had courted money from Mr. Epstein and worked to hide it. Mr. Ito also traveled twice to Mr. Epstein’s Caribbean island home.
The Times then provides a summary of Lessig’s “doubling down” on his supposed defense of taking money from Epstein:
Mr. Lessig signed a letter in support of Mr. Ito, and then published a 3,500-word essay on the subject. He argued that in an ideal world, no institution should take money from people like Mr. Epstein, but that in reality, much of the money that props up universities and other elite institutions comes from troubling sources.
Mr. Lessig suggested that donors to places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be organized in four buckets, ranging from “people like Tom Hanks or Taylor Swift — people who are wealthy and whose wealth comes from nothing but doing good” — to “entities and people whose wealth comes from clearly wrongful or harmful or immoral behavior.” Mr. Lessig, who noted that he was a childhood victim of sexual abuse, also argued that the act of veiling Mr. Epstein’s contributions was good, because it avoided “whitewashing” his reputation.
Now, as reported by USA Today, Lessig is accusing the Times of deliberately distorting what he said about donations from the likes of Epstein, publishing a “sensationalized, false and defamatory ‘clickbait’ headline and lede” that presents the “direct opposite” of what he actually argued.
— Lessig (@lessig) January 13, 2020
Lessig’s lawsuit states that “within hours” of the publication of the story, the professor “became associated with the notoriety surrounding the Epstein scandal, and the community that quietly or silently tolerated such monstrosity.” The story, Lessig contends, is a clear case of defamation, as he explains at length in a blogpost on Medium posted Monday.
The Times’ title and lede for the article on his discussion about the Epstein donation scandal, Lessig writes in the blogpost, “are false.” After pointing out passages from his original post, including where he states clearly that “it was a mistake to take this money, even if anonymous,” Lessig writes:
My essay was clearly not “defend[ing] soliciting donations” from Epstein. My essay said—repeatedly—that such soliciting was a “mistake.” And more importantly, it was a mistake because of the kind of harm it would trigger in both victims and women generally. … I did not defend taking money from Epstein. I didn’t say it was ok to take money from Epstein “if in secret.” I said it was wrong to take Epstein’s money, “even if anonymous.” The assertion—in the tweeted headline and lede—to the contrary is thus flatly false.
“I love the Times,” Lessig writes. “I know that journalism is hard, and deadlines are short. So I when I asked the Times to correct these two false and defamatory statements, I fully expected they would, and I fully expected that would be the end of it. And I so I was astonished when they not only refused to fix the mistake, but doubled down on the absurdity of their justifications.”
The Times responded Monday to Lessig’s lawsuit by declaring that it will defend against his claim “vigorously.”
“When Professor Lessig contacted The Times to complain about the story, senior editors reviewed his complaint and were satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements,” said Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. “We plan to defend against the claim vigorously.”