Hedge-fund billionaire Bill Ackman was one of the loudest voices calling for the removal of former Harvard president Claudine Gay, first taking issue with her handling of the October 7 Hamas attack and then amplifying reports that Gay had a habit of plagiarizing during her academic career. But his tune changed on the latter topic when Business Insider found clear evidence that Ackman’s wife, the designer and former MIT researcher Neri Oxman, has a history of plagiarism herself. (Among other things, it appears she copied from Wikipedia without attribution for her Ph.D. dissertation.)
In a number of extremely long threads on X, Ackman has railed against Business Insider and its parent company, Axel Springer, for what he describes as a lack of “due process” and has threatened to finance a defamation suit on behalf of his wife. To see if Ackman and Oxman have a case, I spoke with media attorney Edward Klaris. An adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and former counsel at Condé Nast, Klaris explained why Ackman’s tough talk probably won’t translate into legal victory.
Ackman has lashed out on social media and threatened to “unleash hell” on Business Insider for what he describes as “false reporting.” But does the famously litigious businessman have a case?
I do not believe he has a valid claim against Business Insider on behalf of his wife. It would obviously be his wife who is the plaintiff, not him, but he would pay for it. A key component of a libel claim is that the plaintiff — in this case, Neri Oxman — would have to prove falsity. That would be the threshold question. She would have to allege that she did not plagiarize. She has already admitted to plagiarizing, and there are plenty of comparisons out there of what she wrote and what was originally on Wikipedia. It’s clear that there’s copying. I can’t see how they can get through the threshold question of falsity.
The legal standard for defamation applies differently to private and public figures, with a lower burden of proof for private individuals. Does Oxman meet the definition of a public figure here?
Any defendant would argue that she is a public figure because she has availed herself of the media many, many times over the course of many, many years around her academics, the Jeffrey Epstein matter, and now this. Plus the fact that she’s married to a public figure and is public with him — that’s going to be a component. But if you just look at all of her YouTube videos and her media appearances and her positions on boards, I think any defendant would argue that she is a public figure.
But even if she’s not a general-purpose public figure, she would be a limited-purpose public figure in regard to this controversy. Ackman is very much in the limelight, and he was accusing an academic of misappropriating other people’s work. He’s married to a very famous academic. The fact that the media took him and his wife as a unit would make her a part of this controversy as a limited-purpose public figure.
Ackman has said Business Insider gave him and Oxman a 90-minute window to respond to its reporting before publishing. (He also noted that reporters tried to contact him the night before publication as well but could not get in touch.) Is 90 minutes an appropriate amount of time for a reporter to request a comment?
Under U.S. law, 90 minutes is perfectly fine. It’s a breaking news story, other people might have it, and there’s a deadline. There’s no magic under U.S. law, but 90 minutes is not atypical.
The reporters on this story are all on staff at Business Insider. Could they have personal exposure to a lawsuit like this?
They could be sued individually, and sometimes particularly obnoxious plaintiffs will sue the journalists themselves. But in this case, even if they do get sued, Axel Springer will cover their defense and any final liability. The only reason Ackman would sue them individually is to bully them, which he is doing anyway. These people don’t have deep pockets — they’re not going to really redress Neri Oxman’s reputational quote-unquote harms. They’re just reporters trying to tell newsworthy stories. So the bullying would be obvious, and I think any court would dismiss individual claims pretty quickly. And Oxman would be a very unsympathetic plaintiff.
So does Business Insider have any serious reason to be worried here?
At the end of the day, if they hold their line and defend thesmelves, they look good. This is clearly an example of a rich person pushing his weight around and trying to get an advantage and trying to bully them into capitulating and not doing bad stories about him. I do think they can rest easy that they’re not going to lose this case. I just hope Axel Springer supports its journalists enough not to make them scared in the future to write these important stories.
I would be surprised if Ackman actually sues, though. I think this is all saber-rattling, but it’s interesting to see.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.