The e-mail arrived unbidden four years ago, bearing the stamp of a sender whose name he didn’t recognize. All the message said was, “Are you the Lawrence Lessig who went to the Boychoir School?”
It had been a long time since anyone had identified the Stanford Law School professor that way. But it was true: From 1972 to 1976, Lessig had spent his sixth-through-ninth-grade years at the American Boychoir School in Princeton.
So Lessig wrote back, “Yeah, I’m the guy who went to the Boychoir School. What’s up?” And with that, he opened up a closed doorway to his past—and found himself swept right through it.
Now, on the last Monday of November 2004, Lessig has just arrived at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, New Jersey. He is here to make an argument before the Supreme Court of New Jersey. His client, the plaintiff, is his e-mail correspondent. The defendant is their alma mater.
Since its founding in 1937, the nonsectarian Boychoir School has gained worldwide renown for producing a choir rivaled only by the more famous one in Vienna; its kids have sung for presidents, popes, and behind Beyoncé at this year’s Academy Awards. But now Lessig’s client, John Hardwicke, is claiming that in the seventies, the school was a ghoulish sanctuary for the sexual abuse of children. In his two years there, Hardwicke says he was repeatedly molested and raped—induced, as the brief on his behalf to the state supreme court puts it, to “perform virtually every sexual act that could conceivably have been accomplished between two males”—by the music director, the headmaster, the proctor, and the cook.
This is not the sort of case for which Larry Lessig is famous. At 43, Lessig has built a reputation as the king of Internet law and as the most important next-wave thinker on intellectual property. The author of three influential books on the intersection of law, politics, and digital technology, he’s the founder of Creative Commons, an ambitious attempt to forge an alternative to the current copyright regime. According to his mentor, the federal appellate judge Richard Posner, Lessig is “the most distinguished law professor of his generation.” He’s also a celebrity. On a West Wing episode this winter, he was featured as a character. “The Elvis of cyberlaw” is how Wired has described him.
I have known Lessig well, professionally and socially, for nearly five years. I’ve never seen him look as nervous as he does this morning. Dressed in a dark suit, his hair slicked back, tiny wire-rims perched on his nose, he moves slowly, ponderously, as if the weight of the stakes in the case is resting literally on his shoulders. The school (known until 1980 as the Columbus Boychoir School) has argued that, under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act, a statute designed to shield nonprofits from negligence lawsuits, it can’t be held financially liable no matter how heinous Hardwicke’s abuse. If the supreme court agrees, Hardwicke’s case will be dismissed before even being heard by a jury. And scores of sex-abuse suits against New Jersey Catholic churches and schools will be rendered void as well. The church, not surprisingly, has weighed in on the side of the school.
During his work on the case, Lessig has been asked more than once by the press if he had experiences at the school similar to Hardwicke’s. And Lessig has replied, “My experiences aren’t what’s at issue here. What’s at issue is what happened to John Hardwicke.”
The answer is appropriate, politic—but it’s not entirely true. For Lessig has told me that he too was abused at the Boychoir School, and by the same music director that Hardwicke claims was one of his abusers. Lessig is by nature a shy, intensely private person. The fact of his abuse is known to almost no one: not the reporters covering the case, not the supreme-court justices. The fact of his abuse isn’t even known to Larry Lessig’s parents.
In taking this case, however, Lessig has cast aside his caution about a secret that haunts him still. And while his passion about his client’s cause is real and visceral, Hardwicke isn’t the only plaintiff here. Lessig is also litigating on behalf of the child he once was.
The Boychoir School sits on seventeen acres not far from the Princeton campus, surrounded by stands of evergreens and a scattering of suburban houses. You approach the grounds up a narrow drive, past a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign, until you come to a big grass oval in front of a handsome brick Georgian mansion. Three stories high, with 50-odd rooms, the mansion is known as Albemarle and was once the home of Gerard Lambert, the founder of the chemical company that morphed into Warner-Lambert.
In the late sixties, there were several dozen fifth-to-ninth-grade boys living in Albemarle. Every morning, a bell would ring to signal the start to their day, in which classes were interspersed with three one-hour rehearsals, along with private voice tutoring and piano lessons. “Music was in the walls of the school; it was everywhere,” a former student recalls. Decked out in uniforms of navy-blue pants and button-down shirts or turtlenecks, the boys sang Bach, Handel, Mahler, Copland, Bernstein, and American spirituals. All through the school year, they toured the United States, driving around in a big bus kitted out with desks and a lunch counter. In the summer, the best of the choristers were taken on tours of Europe; on one occasion, they performed for Pope Paul VI—who placed his hands on the head of a soloist, Bobby Byrens, and declared, “He has the voice of an angel.”