For the last few days, billionaire Bill Ackman has slowly developed the callouses that a lifetime spent as a prep school and Ivy League-educated finance bro denied him. Taking full advantage of the expanded character limit for Bluechecks, Ackman’s busy thumbs have typed out lengthy screeds against Business Insider for reporting that Ackman’s wife, MIT professor Neri Oxman, lifted passages from others without attribution for her dissertation and lifted directly from Wikipedia.
Best $8/month this guy ever spent!
Ackman’s even asked “the @X legal community” if he should file a defamation suit. If he ever gets around to talking to a real lawyer, they might want to tell him to shut up.
Ackman’s social media frenzy began last month when he threw himself into the effort to fire Harvard president Claudine Gay, ostensibly for giving bad answers to questions to legislators deeply concerned about antisemitism on campus. That the legislator in question, Elise Stefanik, has openly pushed the Great Replacement Theory didn’t seem to factor into the equation.
Gay, like now-former Penn president Liz Magill, delivered entirely accurate accounts of how free speech is supposed to work — to wit, no matter how vile the statement, it’s not punishable unless it crosses into harassment. Reasonable minds can quibble about when speech constitutes harassment, but there’s at least some point where speech is just speech.
Magill resigned, but Harvard stood behind Gay, prompting critics like Ackman to seek out new attacks against her, ultimately settling on allegations that she committed plagiarism. While Gay would ultimately resign, the accusation was… comical:
Not to go all Frank Easterbrook-textualist here, but when you write about statutes, you’re kind of limited to THE TEXT OF THE STATUTE. But Ackman ate this stuff up, becoming social media’s biggest defender of academic purity in the name of forcing Gay out.
And then along came Business Insider asking the reasonable question: “I wonder if Ackman’s wife has ever copied anything that would meet Ackman’s standard?” The investigation appears to have turned up some verbatim or near verbatim copying. Like…
This is, by the way, more sloppy than pernicious. She cites Mattheck elsewhere so it’s not like she’s trying to lift those ideas without attribution. Many of the examples turned up by BI include citations, but just not quotation marks. Though, here’s the thing… when Claudine Gay did this, Ackman declared it a fireable offense.
Goose, meet Gander.
And at least Gay wasn’t copying from Wikipedia. Which, whatever you think about plagiarism — and there are very sound arguments that plagiarism a dumb thing to obsess over — is just embarrassing.
Ackman took the accusation about his own hypocrisy in stride. Just kidding, he went ballistic. This is one of several rants Ackman has posted on this subject over the last week:
A fun fact:
Spoiler: this will not be a fun fact.
Our lawyers used the Wayback Machine to check @MIT’s plagiarism policy back when Neri wrote her thesis in 2009.
Note that he suggests that he has lawyers here. This will come up later.
It turns out that MIT’s academic integrity handbook did not require citation or even mention Wikipedia until 2013, four years after Neri wrote her dissertation and used Wikipedia for the definitions of 15 words and/or terms. Bear in mind that 2009 was still pretty early days for Wikipedia.
Do plagiarism policies need to name every possible source? It seems like “don’t copy stuff without attribution” is a bit of a catch-all, isn’t it?
Skipping over 76 more words — unlimited character posts must be stopped! — Ackman continues:
What are the chances that Business Insider examined the MIT handbook “as far back as 2007” and didn’t notice that there was no requirement to cite Wikipedia nor was it even mentioned until April 4, 2013 when the following language was added:
“Wikipedia is Not a Reliable Academic Source
This is NOT helping. When your argument hinges on the idea that until 2013 the jury was out on whether a crowd-sourced database could be “a reliable academic source,” you’re not winning.
Skipping ahead AGAIN…
To be clear, Neri did not use Wikipedia as a source, but only for the definitions of 15 words and/or terms for her dissertation.
That’s… what the word “source” means?
According to the Cornell Law Legal Information Institute:
In order to prove “prima facie defamation,”
“a plaintiff must show four things:
1) a false statement purporting to be fact;
2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person;
3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and
4) damages, or some harm caused to the reputation of the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.”
Right. It also requires actual malice when the subject is a public figure. When folks pointed that out, Ackman tweeted, “.@NeriOxman is not a public figure. She is an intensely private person married to a public figure.”
Swing and a miss.
Public figures do not have to have voluntarily inserted themselves into a conversation. Oxman got dragged into this when Ackman decided to use plagiarism as his justification to wage war on Claudine Gay. Even if Ackman hadn’t, a court would most likely find Oxman a public figure at least for the purpose of academic ethics claims because she is definitely a prominent figure within academia.
Remember how Ackman said up top that he had lawyers? Have they not explained this?
This leads me to a few question for the @X legal community.
Dude, I know rates are up, but you can afford a real lawyer before crowdsourcing this one. On the other hand, this is a family who really loves Wikipedia so maybe crowdsourcing is just their thing.
This dweeb wrote over 4000 words about how diversity is destroying the world by elevating people “not qualified to serve in that role” and then goes to “THE @X LEGAL COMMUNITY” instead of picking up the phone and calling an actual defamation lawyer?
Anyway, a lawyer would tell Ackman all about the public figure problem. They’d also explain that it’s a problem for a defamation claim when he’s publicly (and at length) admitting that the FACT of the copied passages alleged by BI is true, but that he just doesn’t think it should constitute “plagiarism.” And they’d definitely let him know that the lawsuit he’s describing in this and other posts is just a SLAPP suit.
But most importantly, a real lawyer would tell him that all of these posts are just making it worse. Entering “Neri Oxman” on a search engine now delivers a bunch of hits about “plagiarism” which is exactly what he doesn’t want to be teaching the algorithm. Even if some cognizable defamation claim exists here — and it’s not apparent that it does — scrolling Ackman’s social media provides a ton of troublesome admissions that would undermine a future case.
Sometimes lawyers aren’t just there for the “legal” advice. Telling someone to stop making their wife famous for all the wrong reasons is sage counsel too.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.