Big news in media land this week: Stephen Elliott, the novelist and filmmaker who was anonymously accused of rape, is suing Moira Donegan, the creator of the Shitty Media Men list.
A quick refresher: Last fall, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the ousting of alleged or admitted abusers in politics, media, entertainment, etc., Donegan, then an editor at the New Republic, started a crowd-sourced document collecting the names of men in media who had been accused of everything from "weird dates" to rape. This document, which was not password-protected, was passed around women's media circles and eventually posted online, where it was accessible to anyone who knew how to google it—which, after BuzzFeed wrote about the list, plenty of people did. Stephen Elliott was on that list, accused of—in addition to coercion, inviting women back to his apartment, and sneaking into a women's only Facebook group—rape. He says the rape allegation is false.
I wrote about Elliott earlier this week as part of a story on a similar rape list published by anonymous students at the University of Washington. That list, which was launched online at the end of September, solicits and publishes allegations of rape, assault, and abuse by students at UW as well as anywhere else. According to the UW student newspaper, by early this week, the creators had received over 300 submissions and the site has been viewed over 75,000 times.
I interviewed Elliott to get some perspective on what happens when one is anonymously (and, he says, falsely) accused of sexual assault (something he has written about himself). In Elliott's case, he lost friends, family, and work. His Hollywood agent dropped him, his publisher declined to do press for his latest book, he was disinvited from speaking events, and he's now living in New Orleans, doing manual labor, staying at a friend's house, and, as of this week, filing a lawsuit against the woman he feels is responsible for upending his life.
The suit, which Jezebel first reported, alleges that Donegan and the other contributors to the list knowingly defamed Elliott, resulting in lost wages and emotional distress. He's asked for at least $1.5 million in damages, although the complaint notes than any monetary award would be decided by a judge. Elliott himself is broke, but he's got a seriously high powered attorney working on the case: Andrew Miltenberg, who made his name defending college students who say they were wrongly accused of rape. (As the Cut noted, Miltenberg's past clients include Paul Nungesser, the Columbia student who was accused of sexual assault by Emma Skulkowitz in 2013. Nungesser was found not culpable by the university, but Sulkowicz carried a mattress with her for nine months as a performance art piece about the burden victims of sexual assault always carry. Miltenberg has also been highly critical of Title IX rules under President Obama, which, he and other critics argue, didn't allow for due process. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently updated Title IX rules to bolster the rights of the accused.)
No one, as far as I know, has threatened to sue the creators of the UW rape list (yet), but according to UW School of Law professor Zahr Said, the creators of that list are exceedingly vulnerable to a defamation suit. While free speech is, of course, protected under the First Amendment, defamation is not. There are, however, some key differences in the UW list and the Shitty Media Men list. For one, while Elliott's complaint claims that he's not a public figure, he is a prolific author and James Franco did star in a film adaptation of his memoir. This is notable because the bar to prove defamation of public figures is higher than proving it of non-famous people like the students named on the UW rape list.
What's more, the UW list is posted online by the creators themselves, while the Shitty Media Men list was not, at least according to Donegan's telling, ever supposed to be public. According to defamation law, however, that doesn't matter. "There may be a difference ethically but there isn't a difference legally," Said told me. (Still, she continued, “I’m very sympathetic to victims of sexual assault. It’s a symptom of a broken system that women don't feel like they have the means to report.”)
Donegan wasn't the only woman involved in the Shitty Media Men list, and Elliott's attorney hopes to compel Google to turn over the other participants' names. (Google, according to the New York Times, said they will comply if ordered to do so by a judge, but, according to the Daily Beast, that information may be long gone.) Those women, called "Jane Does" in the suit, may be liable along with Donegan, but Elliott, who declined to comment on the suit, will have to prove that he didn’t rape anyone first. And that, I suspect, is exactly why he decided to sue, even more than the chance to get paid. He is sure that he is innocent, and he wants to prove it.
From the scathing responses to Elliott's suit, it seems unlikely that this move will restore his reputation, even if Donegan and the other Jane Does are ultimately found culpable of defamation. After Jezebel broke the story, his name was immediately trending on Twitter and someone set up a fund for Donegan's legal defense—which, a day later, has raised over $60,000. Donegan, to many, looks even more like a hero, while Elliott looks more like a fraud.
If Stephen Elliott wants to improve his standing in polite society, this, surely, is not the way to go about it. The men of #MeToo who have been allowed back in the public's good graces have admitted their guilt, apologized, and vowed to do better. Comedian Dan Harmon's public apology for harassing an employee, for instance, has widely been praised as the way to do #MeToo apologies right. Those who've denied the allegations or defended themselves, as John Hockenberry did in Harper's and Jian Ghomeshi did in the New York Review of Books, have just dug their graves even deeper. But while Stephen Elliott, like those men, has already lost in the court of public opinion, he still may have a chance in the court of law. And if this suit proceeds, the implications could be vast, both for those who are named as abusers and those who do the naming—whether they are anonymous or not
An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified Jian Ghomeshi as publising in Harper's and John Hockenberry in the New York Review of Books. We regret the error, and thank the Slog commentor who pointed it out. Turns out you people are good for something!