According to Lessig’s complaint, The New York Times published a “sensationalized, false and defamatory ‘clickbait’ Internet headline and lede in order to drive readers to their story and web site.” The headline and article featured at the center of the suit: “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It In Secret.”
The complaint goes on to state the headline “represented to their readers that Professor Lessig was defending the clandestine acceptance and retention of money from Epstein by institutions of higher learning.”
The Times’ story was based largely on Lessig’s explanatory essay published via the blogging platform Medium and featured two interviews with Lessig. The lengthy Medium post concerned Lessig’s relationship with Joi Ito, former director of the MIT Media Lab, and how Lessig had previously supported Ito online following his entanglement with the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
Lessig’s legal team claims the headline and lede were the “exact opposite of what Lessig had written [on Medium]” despite The New York Times “being told expressly by Lessig pre-publication that they were contrary to what he had written.” Lessig claims he has suffered “significant and irreparable damage to his reputation and profession, as well as emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation” following the publication of the Times story.
Conversely, the New York Times stated, “[w]hen 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. We plan to defend against the claim vigorously.”
Some in the MIT community urged for Ito to be removed from his position after the Epstein connection came to light. Following an exposé in The New Yorker, Ito resigned as Director of MIT’s Media Lab and from his New York Times board membership. The following day, September 8, 2019, Lessig published on Medium. In that post, he recalled that Ito asked him for advice when approached by Epstein, and disavowed his initial position – that if a university were to accept a donation from someone convicted of a crime, it should be done anonymously. Lessig wrote that, in retrospect, accepting any sort of money from Epstein was a mistake due to the damage it would eventually cause once it was discovered. Lessig added an addendum a few days later summarizing MIT’s September 12 statement on the controversy.
This week Lessig wrote another article on Medium, where he discusses his ongoing conflict with the Times. He writes, “MY WORDS at the end here [:] it was a mistake to take this money, even if anonymous’ should be read against the headline from the Times [:] ‘A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If you take Epstein’s money, do it in secret.’ And MY WORDS beginning at: ‘it is a mistake to take this particular type of Type 3 contribution – precisely because of the pain it would cause if it were eventually revealed.’ [S]hould be read against the lede from the Times: ‘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 goes on to say, “[m]y 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.”