Harvard professor withdraws New York Times defamation lawsuit over Jeffrey Epstein story

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A prominent Harvard Law School professor on Monday withdrew a lawsuit accusing The New York Times of “clickbait defamation” concerning his views toward the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, after the newspaper made changes to the online article that prompted the case.

Lawrence Lessig had objected to the Sept. 14, 2019 article “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It In Secret,” saying it falsely suggested he once approved of accepting donations from Epstein, a registered sex offender.

But in an April 2 editors’ note, the Times said it changed the online headline to “What Are the Ethics of Taking Tainted Funds?,” matching the headline used in its print edition.

It also changed the lead to reflect that while Lessig defended his friend Joichi Ito, who resigned as director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after accepting donations from Epstein, he preferred that universities had never taken such money.

The Times said the original lead, which said Lessig “has been trying” to defend soliciting donations from Epstein, “referred imprecisely” to the professor’s views.

A Times spokeswoman said in an email that the newspaper was pleased the lawsuit in Boston federal court has been withdrawn. She also said the new lead “more fully captures what the story says.”

Lessig had accused the Times of embracing clickbaiting, “the use of a shocking headline and/or [lead] to entice readers to click on a particular article,” despite knowing it could harm the reputation of its targets.

“I am happy with the correction. I wish it hadn’t taken 200 days and a lawsuit,” Lessig said in an interview on Monday. “Clickbait is fine if it is true, but we have to make sure the incentives are there to ensure it remains true, and that a headline alone does not create its own defamation.”

Lessig has more than 358,000 Twitter followers, and his Harvard biography quotes the New Yorker as calling him “the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era.”

Epstein pleaded not guilty last July to federal charges he abused and trafficked in women and girls from 2002 to 2005 in Manhattan and Florida. He died on Aug. 10 at age 66 by hanging himself in his Manhattan jail cell.

The case is Lessig v New York Times Co et al, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 20-10060.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky