Lawrence Lessig versus “Clickbait Defamation”

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Today’s video checks so many boxes near and dear to my heart: Epstein! Libel law abuse! Powerful men doing stupid shit that we can all laugh at! Let’s dive in.

Lawrence Lessig is a Harvard law professor who is perhaps best known for founding Creative Commons, the absolutely good and necessary organization that allows for the easy, legal sharing of a variety of creative work. It’s great, because for instance a person can take a photo and make it available to be shared with attribution, so you don’t need to pay to use it in your blog or your video so long as you credit the photographer. It allows for work to be shared, adapted, and used easily in plain language without the need for a law degree to understand it.

Creative Commons is an undeniably Good Thing, but Lessig is doing his best to make it clear that he is more than just a Good Guy who made a Good Thing: he’s also a gigantic asshole. Allegedly. PLEASE DON’T SUE ME LAWRENCE LESSIG!

You see, Lessig is friends with Joi Ito, a man who up until recently ran MIT’s Media Lab. Ito came under fire after investigations revealed that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) from the billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. You might remember Epstein from the MANY times I’ve talked about his cozy relationship with scientists like Lawrence Krauss, or maybe you remember him from the time he fucking finally got real national attention by being arrested in New York, or from that time that he did not kill himself.

Anyway, Epstein donated large amounts of money to the Media Lab as well as arranging for other philanthropists to do so, like Bill Gates. Oh, did you not realize Bill Gates was also connected to all of this? That’s probably because he’s also a billionaire, and billionaires tend to escape scrutiny until superhuman efforts are made on the part of investigators and victims to expose them, at which point they are cornered and someone comes along and helps them commit suicide to protect the other billionaires. It’s the Circle of Life, really.

Once all this came to light, Ito resigned from Media Lab. The New Yorker reported that he had gone out of his way to make sure that Epstein’s donations were anonymous and as untraceable as possible, because by this point Epstein was a convicted child rapist and Ito knew that that could be bad for business.

It was big news when he resigned, and so Lawrence Lessig sat down at his computer and wondered, “How can I make this about myself?” So he wrote a blog post on Medium that admitted that he knew Epstein donated to Media Lab and that he had told Ito that accepting the money was the right thing to do. He said that Ito claimed Epstein was reformed, and that after getting a sweetheart deal that was mostly ignored by everyone when he was initially prosecuted for running a child sex ring, he was so scared he was like “That’s it, I’m giving up pedophilia FOR GOOD.” So Lessig was like “Oh in that case yes, take his money but make sure you do it anonymously.” Brilliant! Ito agreed, covered up the donations, and now here we are.

In his post, Lessig spelled out four types of philanthropist. Type 1 is a person whose wealth comes from doing good things, like Taylor Swift. Weird example but okay. I guess it’s hard to come up with someone who has amassed more money that most humans will ever see in a hundred lifetimes who earned it by not fucking over other people. So, Taylor Swift.

Type 2 is a person whose wealth comes from a large corporation like Google, which can be seen as good or evil in certain lights.

Type 3 is a person who is evil but whose wealth does not come from evil things. Lessig throws Epstein in there.

Type 4 is a person who is evil and whose wealth comes from doing evil, like an old timey mob boss stereotype. 

Lessig argues that the only negative reason to take the money of Types 3 and 4 is if they are making the donation to cleanse their reputation. So, it stands to reason that it is morally ambiguous to take their money anonymously.

Look, you might be thinking “No, it’s not! It is 100% immoral to accept vast sums of money from pedophile rapists, because even if it’s anonymous that person still benefits from the connections they are forming and from the fact that you will now feel beholden to, say, defend them as reformed when they are obviously not reformed and anyone with half a brain can tell!” And you would have a very good point. But before you can even make that point, allow me to highlight this fact: how did Jeffrey Epstein become a billionaire? What objectively good things did he do to earn that money that put him into the Type 3s instead of the Type 4s? Did all that money come from his only verifiable job, which was, let me check my notes here, ah yes, primary school teacher? Because first of all you know that primary school teacher is the fast track to being an ethically-made billionaire, and also you know there’s no way Epstein’s PEDOPHILIA led him to that career. No, he probably did it because it was so ethical. To teach little girls.

Anyway Lessig doesn’t discuss any of that. He just takes it on faith that Jeffrey Epstein, who ran a worldwide child sex trafficking ring, made billions of dollars the moral way. Somehow. Secretly. As an “investor.” With no history of successful investments. And with no data on where the initial money came from with which he invested. Cool.

And so assuming that, Lessig argues “that if (universities) are going to accept blood money (type 4) or the money from people convicted of a crime (type 3), they should only ever accept that money anonymously.” He goes on to say that were it up to him, he would “ban non-anonymous gifts of type 3 or type 4.” He says this repeatedly and very plainly in his post: “IF you are going to take type 3 money, then you should only take it anonymously.” He says that Ito covering up the fact that the donor was Epstein was a virtue. A good thing. A moral thing.

He also mentions that it was a mistake to accept the money. Because, you know, people found out and it caused a big ol’ to-do.

Anyway, the New York Times reported on his post with the headline, “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret.” This is, without a doubt, a very accurate headline. It is nearly word-for-word what Lessig himself wrote and bolded in his own essay: “IF you are going to take type 3 money, then you should only take it anonymously.” That is the exact same sentence. I don’t see any difference between these two pictures.

Lessig did though, and he’s suing the New York Times for what he has called, “clickbait defamation” and friends, it is kind of adorable how enamored Lessig is with this term. He bought the URL. He made a video about it. It’s a hashtag. So catchy! He came up with this phrase and was immediately like, “holy shit forget Creative Commons. This is the one that goes on my gravestone.”

He claims in his lawsuit that the New York Times defamed him by writing that extremely accurate headline using nearly his own words, and then only including the context in the article itself.

That’s…that’s not clickbait. At all. That’s just what headlines have been since headlines were invented. You take the most interesting part of the story that you can distill down to, say, fifteen words or less, and that’s the headline. You can’t fit much more in there so then you spell everything out in the article.

And I really can’t emphasize this enough: the New York Times headline was almost exactly what he wrote himself! And nowhere in the video or the entire website Lessig made does he describe how it was not accurate. His argument seems to be that his 3,500-word Medium post had more context than their 14-word headline. That’s…that’s not defamation. 

And not just in my non-lawyer opinion! It’s also the common opinion of actual lawyers, including those who, like me, aren’t fans of clickbait. The problem here is that defamation lawsuits tend to the exact opposite of what Lessig is hoping for: the judges look at the total context of what was being said, what the person meant when they said it, what are the other words surrounding the words that a person is arguing are defamatory. Lessig wants the headline to be taken completely out of context, as though there wasn’t an article accompanying it. 

And again, even if it was just the headline without an article: it’s literally what he said. That was the meaning of his own words. I really can’t stress that enough.

I could definitely see an instance where “clickbait defamation” is actually a thing that happens. If the New York Times wrote that same article but with a headline reading, “Harvard Professor Loves Billionaire Pedophile and Thinks MIT Rightly Took His Money,” boom, that’s defamation. That’s a purposeful misreading of Lessig’s essay.

But this? Isn’t. And it’s embarrassing that Lessig is doubling down on all of this and using libel bullying to try to silence people who are accurately disseminating his own bad ideas. He’s not just suing the New York Times — he’s included the author of the article as well as her editor and the editor of the paper himself. Because the New York Times is a fairly stable institution, I trust they’re going to fight this. But there’s always the possibility that they will cut their losses and fire the journalist, and that’s fucking scary. Hell, it’s scary just to have someone name you in a lawsuit, regardless of whether or not your employer is going to help you fight it.

Lessig should be embarrassed, and I hope that this clickbait defamation bullshit turns into the Streisand Effect for him. I hope that now everyone will know what a stupid, wrong opinion he had about the whole Jeffrey Epstein/Media Lab fiasco and I hope that this is now what he’s known for for the rest of his miserable life.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. So if the NYT wrote an article titled, “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Money From Questionable Sources, Do It In Secret,” that would have been just fine? Is it a problem of them (in his opinion) inaccurately summarizing his position (which they didn’t), or does he just not like having Epstein’s name in the title of the article? Because either way, it’s not defamation, and Lessig certainly knows it. I mean, he has to know it, right? Ugh.

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