Harvard professor drops lawsuit against NYT after paper tweaks Epstein story

Harvard professor drops lawsuit against NYT after paper tweaks Epstein story

A Harvard law professor who sued The New York Times for defamation earlier this year has decided to drop the case after the paper altered a 2019 story about his defense of a university official who took donations from the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Lawrence Lessig, a well-known legal scholar and activist, had accused the Times of employing "clickbait" in its article to suggest that he had defended a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) official's solicitation of donations from Epstein.
Last week, the paper changed its headline and lede and attached an editor's note saying that the update was intended to more accurately reflect Lessig's position, which is that universities should not take money from such disreputable sources, but if they do, they should do so anonymously.

"An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely in the lead paragraph to the views of Professor Lawrence Lessig," reads the editor's note on the story. "The lead has been edited to reflect that while Mr. Lessig defended Joi Ito, who had accepted anonymous donations from Jeffrey Epstein, he said he would prefer that institutions not accept such money. The headline has also been changed, and this version of the article now has the same headline as in the print edition of The Times."

Lessig said there was no agreement between the parties to make the changes in exchange for the lawsuit being withdrawn. A New York Times spokeswoman said the paper was pleased that Lessig had decided to drop the case and that it had been on the verge of asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.


"We chose not to enter into a settlement agreement but instead decided to make minor changes in the lead so that it more fully captures what the story says, and we are now using our original print headline on the online version of the story," the spokesperson said in a statement. "As we were about to file a motion to dismiss, Professor Lessig withdrew his suit, before a judge was able to assess the suit's merits."

The story's previous headline had read "A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret," and the article opened with, "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 article's new headline is more circumspect: "What Are the Ethics of Taking Tainted Funds?" And the lede now reads, "It is hard to defend a university official who anonymously accepted donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying, even though he wishes universities had never taken the money."

Lessig told The Hill in a brief phone interview that he had urged the paper to change its story after it was first published in September of last year only to be rebuffed by the Times's top editors.

"All I expected to happen at that point was that they would fix it, that they would make it into something that isn't false and defamatory," he said. "The fact that they resisted and it took 200 days and a lawsuit to do what's pretty obvious is an indication that we need a better system here."


While he's satisfied with the changes that were made, he's still concerned about how the incentives of online advertising and social media are influencing journalism, what he described in the lawsuit as a "growing journalistic culture of clickbaiting."

"I don't think we should be suing papers except in the most extreme cases, but on the other hand I think newspapers have to make sure that if they're going to start selling ads on the basis of the click-throughs from headlines, they need to continue to make sure that their headlines are accurate and fair," Lessig told The Hill, adding that he still admires the Times and believes it's an important institution.

When the case was first filed in January, the Times promised to "defend against the claim vigorously."

"Senior editors reviewed the story after Professor Lessig complained and were satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements," a spokesperson said in a statement at the time.

--Updated at 2:17 p.m.