Cyberlaw Twitter has been mildly abuzz recently over the news that Professor Larry Lessig. Has decided to sue the New York Times for defamation. Specifically, Lessig claims that a NYT article describing this essay on Medium, explaining his position around the mess at MIT Media Lab and an anonymous donation from the late and utterly unlamented Jeffery Epstein. In his complaint, Lessig accuses the NYT of using a deliberately misleading headline and lede knowing that the vast majority of people do not click through to read the actual content they share with others and that therefore this “clickbait defamation” (as Lessig calls it) was knowingly defamatory even under the exacting standard of NYT v. Sullivan.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of both the connection with Jeff Epstein and because newspapers don’t like to be sued, folks have reacted with particularly scathing criticism of this lawsuit. Many view this as contradictory to Lessig’s previous advocacy for an open internet and information freedom. Some have gone so far as to accuse Lessig of filing a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP) complaint. Meanwhile, legal Twitter has been awash with rather melodramatic proclamations of how Lessig has lost his way by suing a newspaper, even if it did screw him over bigly.
Perhaps it is just the sheer overwrote nonsense that gets me contrarian here, but I’m going to disagree with the broader tech Twitter community on this. The Lessig Lawsuit actually raises a rather interesting new question of defamation law with a high degree of relevance in the modern world. It also highlights one of the things defamation law is concerned about — the ability of people to spread false statements that have very serious impact on your life or profession with virtually no repercussions. The complicated dance between needing defamation to protect people from harassment and potentially having their lives destroyed and the First Amendment protections for speech and the press has been pumped up on steroids in the information age — but we still need to remember that it is sometimes complicated. It is also important to keep in mind that while defamation law is frequently abused, it also plays a very important role in pushing back on deliberate misinformation and using a fairly powerful megaphone to make other people’s lives miserable — such as with the lawsuit by Sandy Hook families against Alex Jones. Defamation law requires a balance, which is why we cure the problem of SLAPP suits with Anti-SLAPP suit statutes rather than simply eliminating ye olde common law tort of defamation.
So I’m going to run through the Case for the Lessig Lawsuit below. To be clear, I’m not saying I agree with Lessig. Also, as someone who himself has a tendency to overshare and think things through online, I rank trying to work out complex highly emotionally charged issues online as up there with Hamilton’s decision to publish the Reynold’s Pamphlet. On the other hand, the chilling effect on open and honest discussion from “clickbait defamation” is an argument in favor of finding for Lessig here. Indeed, I have hesitated to say anything because the “chain of association cooties” and the ancient legal principle of “why borrow trouble.” (I am so looking forward to headline before my Senate confirmation hearing under President Warren with the title “Nominee supported Taking Jeff Epstien donation at MIT” — despite the fact that nothing in this blog post could reasonably suggest such a thing and the likelihood of my being nominated for anything requiring Senate confirmation ranks just behind my winning MegaMillions.) But I am hoping that obscurity combined with mind-numbing historical and legal discussion about one of my favorite traditional actions at common law will save me from too much opprobrium. Besides, the actual legal question is interesting and highly relevant in today’s media environment, and deserves some serious discussion rather than dismissive mockery.
More below . . . .