Libel lawsuit over ‘media men’ list settled out of court
NEW YORK (AP) — An author-editor’s libel lawsuit over allegations that he had committed sexual assault, widely cited as a prime example of backlash against the #MeToo movement, has been settled out of court. Stephen Elliott had filed the lawsuit in 2018 against writer Moira Donegan, who had organized a list of “s—tty media men.”
A brief document filed last week by U.S. District Court in Eastern New York noted that the case had been “voluntarily dismissed,” per agreement between the attorneys for Elliott and Donegan.
“I’m glad the lawsuit is over,” Elliott, founding editor of the online publication The Rumpus and author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, told The Associated Press in an email Tuesday. “They were never able to find anyone to accuse me of anything remotely close to rape so I feel my name is cleared.”
Efforts to reach Donegan, a columnist for The Guardian who has previously written for The New Republic, among others, were not immediately successful. And her attorneys did immediately respond to requests for comment. According to Elliott, Donegan “gave me six figures and no apology, which I didn’t want anyway because what’s the point if they don’t mean it.”
Elliott had sought at least $1.5 million in damages.
Elliott was among dozens of male media professionals whose name appeared in 2017 on a crowdsourced Google spreadsheet that was supposed to be a private communication among women in the business, one that circulated in the aftermath of The New York Times’ and The New Yorker’s’ groundbreaking reporting on the allegations of assault and harassment against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Alongside each name on the media men list was a compilation of anonymous allegations; those against Elliott included “Rape accusations, sexual harassment, coercion.” The list’s existence became known to the public after Doree Shafrir reported on it for Buzzfeed, with Donegan writing soon after for The New Republic that she had initiated it.
“I was incredibly naïve when I made the spreadsheet,” Donegan wrote. “I was naïve because I did not understand the forces that would make the document go viral. I was naïve because I thought that the document would not be made public, and when it became clear that it would be, I was naïve because I thought that the focus would be on the behavior described in the document, rather than on the document itself.”
Deborah Tuerkheimer, professor of law at Northwestern University, counseled against drawing any broader conclusions from the outcome of this particular case, a confidential settlement that avoids costly litigation, and one where nobody gets to say they won or the other side lost. The fact that the terms are unknown makes it “exceedingly difficult to wrap this up with a bow and say we now have a takeaway on this case – we don’t,” she said.
Rather, Tuerkheimer said, the case provides a window into interesting issues emerging in the #MeToo era. Such defamation lawsuits are being seen more frequently than ever before, she noted, and that is because in the #MeToo era, traditional channels of reporting abuse – often unsatisfactory and inadequate – have yielded to less formal channels, as in an emailed spreadsheet in this case, rather than a police report or a Title IX procedure or a human resources case at a workplace. Tuerkheimer is the author of the book “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.”
“These unofficial reporting channels have become really, really busy in this time,” she said. “And I think that there’s a lot about that that should be celebrated and has helped as a culture for us to reckon with the prevalence of abuse. But there’s also a cost to that. One of the drawbacks to all of these kind of stories being told outside of these formal channels is that accusers become targets for these kinds of lawsuits. And even if their allegations are true, in the end, it is really very difficult to go through one of these lawsuits as a defendant.” That could cause a chilling effect for women coming forward, she added.
But it is because formal channels have failed that women often take such steps, Tuerkheimer noted. “I want people to understand that it’s because these formal channels have really largely not served survivors and not helped them to find accountability,” she said.
In suing Donegan, Elliott had requested, in addition to money, “a written retraction.”
“My life is permanently changed as result of being falsely accused of rape,” Elliott, who says he know works in property management and contracting, told the AP on Tuesday. “You never really get over such a thing. My agent fired me, my publisher and editor publicly supported the list.”
“I don’t write anymore, or teach,” he added. “I barely know anyone connected with the literary world where I made my living for over 20 years. I had to learn to work in an entirely different field and I lost almost all of my friends. But there’s some closure here. It’s enough money that it’s basically an admission of guilt and it feels like a victory.”