Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought in federal court by a former Harvard employee, Eric Clopper, over the Crimson’s coverage of — and the University’s subsequent response to — a 2018 performance he put on at Sanders Theatre.
U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns granted separate motions to dismiss filed by Harvard and The Crimson — which operate independently — due to a failure by the plaintiff to state a claim. In doing so, Stearns dismissed charges of defamation, civil rights, tortious interference, and conspiracy against The Crimson.
On May 1, 2018, Clopper held a performance at Sanders Theatre during which he criticized the practice of circumcision by referring to Jewish people as “an unmasked genital mutilation cult” and stripped nude. In a statement, Harvard spokesperson Rachel Dane said that Clopper’s performance “appears to violate” Sanders Theatre’s entertainment license with the City of Cambridge, which prohibits public exposure of “the pubic area, anus, or genitals, or any simulation thereof.”
Two days later, The Crimson reported that the University was “reviewing” Clopper’s show, and on May 4, The Crimson reported that Clopper — who is Jewish — planned the event during work hours at Harvard. Harvard terminated Clopper’s employment on July 12, according to the lawsuit.
In July 2020, Clopper filed suit in federal court, alleging that Harvard “breached the express and implied employment agreement” and that The Crimson’s characterization of his show as a “nude, anti-Semitic rant” — which appeared in the headline of the paper’s May 3, 2018 story — was “a patent falsehood.”
Clopper also accused The Crimson of conspiring with Harvard to defame and steal the play. The Crimson is editorially and financially independent from the University.
Clopper alleged The Crimson defamed him in three separate instances: by stating Clopper “improperly worked on the play during work hours,” that he “is anti-Semitic,” and that he “engaged in a ‘nude, anti-Semitic rant’ in Harvard's Sanders Theatre.” In a court order, Stearns wrote that “the court determines that none of these statements is actionable.”
Stearns wrote that The Crimson’s claims regarding Clopper’s work schedule were “demonstrably true” and that The Crimson’s description of the performance as “anti-Semitic” constituted “opinions based on disclosed, non-defamatory facts (i.e., direct quotations from the performance).” In reference to The Crimson’s headline, Stearns wrote that “the context of the referenced headline indisputably dispels any defamatory interpretation.”
In the same motion, Stearns dismissed Clopper’s other allegations against The Crimson. Stearns wrote that Clopper’s accusation of conspiracy and tortious interference between The Crimson and The University “fail because they depend on the viability of the nonactionable defamation claim.”
Aidan F. Ryan ’21, The Crimson’s President, wrote in a statement that “the federal district court’s well-reasoned decision recognizes that journalists at all levels are protected by the First Amendment.”
“Judge Stearns’s ruling does not merely protect the right to freedom of the press. It also vindicates The Crimson’s longstanding commitment to reporting fairly, frankly, and in accordance with the highest standard of journalistic ethics,” Ryan added.
Clopper has until December 7, 2020, to appeal Stearns’s decision.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.