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Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig Drops Lawsuit Against the New York Times

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Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig dropped a lawsuit Monday that he had filed against the New York Times after the newspaper changed the headline and lede of a story about his views on the practice of accepting money from deceased sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein.

Lessig filed a suit against the Times in January alleging that a Sept. 14 story it published last year under the headline “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret” was “false and defamatory.”

The article was based on a September Medium post that Lessig wrote explaining his decision to sign a petition supporting his friend Joichi “Joi” Ito, who resigned as head of the MIT Media Lab and stepped down as a visiting professor at Harvard after the New Yorker reported he had attempted to conceal the lab’s financial ties to Epstein.

On April 2, the Times’ story was updated with an altered lede and a headline that matched its print title.

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Lessig told The Crimson Wednesday that he did not reach a settlement with the Times. He said he decided to drop his suit soon after the changes to the story were made.

“I’m satisfied with what they’ve done,” Lessig said. “I think their current characterization is accurate. I hope that the understanding of the change can spread far enough to especially those people who had a misimpression because of the original story.”

An editors’ note added to the piece said that the previous version of the story “referred imprecisely” to Lessig’s views.

“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 editors’ note reads.

The story’s lede — which originally said Lessig “has been trying” to defend the practice of soliciting donations from Epstein — 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 said he “was surprised how long it took” for the story to be changed. He added that he did not think the Times would have altered the piece had he not brought a lawsuit.

“I asked for them to make the change the very first day the story went up,” he said. “Had they made this change at that point, then a significant amount of hate and anger would not have been directed against me, and many people’s judgments would not have been affected the way they’ve been affected. There’s nothing I can do to really repair that.”

“I hope that the Times — or any publication that relies on online spreading of their stories through headlines that are designed to attract people in, we could call it clickbait — will think about better procedures for making sure that a similar thing doesn’t happen to others,” Lessig added.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson, New York Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said the newspaper was “disappointed” in Lessig’s decision to file a suit.

“The revisions we have now made to the lead of the story were proposed to Professor Lessig and his attorney in October,” she wrote. “We were disappointed that instead of responding, he chose to file a lawsuit. The story accurately captured Professor Lessig’s views (as he conceded after publication in an email to our reporter). The changes in the lead were designed to more fully summarize what the rest of the article accurately reported.”

“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,” she added.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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