Former Harvard employee files rare lawsuit against student newspaper

(Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts / Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

MASSACHUSETTS — A former Harvard University employee named the school’s student newspaper in a federal lawsuit filed July 20, accusing The Harvard Crimson of defamation and libel over coverage of his nude play about circumcision. 

Eric Clopper, who worked as a systems administrator at the university, filed suit against Harvard, The Crimson, a Harvard governing board and 10 unnamed alumni and donors in U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The lawsuit centers around a play Clopper wrote and performed while employed in May 2018, titled “Sex & Circumcision: An American Love Story.”

The lawsuit alleges The Crimson defamed Clopper by referring to his play as a “nude, anti-Semitic rant” in an article detailing Harvard’s decision to review complaints made against the one-man production. Clopper denounced circumcision in the play, and wrote in the lawsuit he is “adamantly opposed to non-consensual circumcision or genital cutting.”

The Crimson reported multiple controversial statements Clopper made in the play, citing videos they obtained of the show. 

Clopper wrote in the lawsuit that he is Jewish. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Crimson President Aidan Clark declined to comment.

The day following The Crimson’s initial story, the newspaper reported Clopper had planned the production during work hours. Clopper’s colleagues also raised concerns about the play to administrative staff, according to internal emails cited by The Crimson

Harvard terminated Clopper’s employment two months after the performance, according to the suit. Clopper alleged the university violated free expression law by stepping in shortly before the play began to tell him he could not perform nude, saying he could no longer advertise for the play, and having a theatre manager “physically and threateningly” block him from making closing remarks the night of the production.

The suit includes other allegations against Harvard, including breaches of contract, employment agreement and free speech policy.

Clopper accused The Crimson in the suit of creating an “anti-Semitic narrative by taking nonrepresentative and incomplete quotes” from his production. He also alleged Harvard conspired with The Crimson to defame him.

Clopper is seeking compensatory damages to be determined in court, Harvard’s profits on Clopper’s past work, attorneys fees and any additional relief, according to the suit. 

SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said Clopper’s suit against a student media organization is not common.

“Libel lawsuits against college student media are quite rare and successful lawsuits even rarer,” he said. “It seems pretty clear the plaintiff’s main beef is with Harvard University itself and that — as the messenger — The Crimson is mainly being targeted for trying to describe that conflict, which is the newspaper’s job,” he said.

There are four elements a person must establish in order to prove he or she has been defamed: publication, identification, harm and fault. SPLC’s four elements of libel law guide describes how each element can be proved.

The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Want more stories like this? Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.