Miltenberg, Davis, Sacks: “Harvard Professor’s Reputation, Renown Probed in Defamation Suit,” Bloomberg Law


Harvard Professor’s Reputation, Renown Probed in Defamation Suit
Bloomberg Law
By Allie Reed
April 26, 2024

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino’s claims that the university defamed her should fail because she is a public figure and concerns about her research were true statements, Harvard’s lawyer told a federal judge Friday.

Gino, a widely-published behavioral scientist with tenure, wants the court to award her $25 million in damages for the alleged harm the university has done to her reputation following accusations of research misconduct. That request “would make no sense were she not a public figure,” said Douglas Brayley, a Ropes & Gray LLP partner representing Harvard. If the court agrees, it would raise the bar Gino has to meet to prove the university defamed her.

Harvard Business School put Gino on unpaid administrative leave last June after concluding in an 18-month investigation that she committed research misconduct in four papers with data anomalies. Harvard publicized her administrative leave and contacted her editors and co-authors about the research papers at issue, which Gino claims constitutes defamation.

Julie Sacks, Gino’s attorney and senior litigation counsel for Nesenoff & Miltenberg, denied that Gino is a public figure and said that “bringing a lawsuit to defend oneself” does not “thrust herself to the center” of public attention.

“You have a little bit more than that here,” Judge Myong J. Joun said during a hearing on Harvard’s motion to dismiss at the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. “Would you agree that she’s a public figure in her field?”

“She’s a successful academic,” Sacks responded.

Gino must also prove that Harvard’s statements were false. “The retraction notices themselves are filled with false and verifiable defamatory statements of fact that Professor Gino engaged in fraud,” Sacks said. Gino denies falsifying or fabricating data.

Brayley said the notices Harvard sent to Gino’s colleagues were “in connection with its obligation as a leading academic institution to ensure that there is a correct academic record,” and the concerns they expressed about data anomalies were not defamatory because they were true.

Gino is also suing the professors running Data Colada, a blog that investigates potential research fraud, who had expressed concerns about Gino’s work. Gino’s lawyer said that blog posts they made accusing her of fraud are “demonstrably false.”

“Their statements are opinions based on unchallenged, truthful, disclosed, non-defamatory facts” and that type of speech “is absolutely protected by the First Amendment,” said their attorney Jeffrey Pyle, a partner at Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Pyle said “it would greatly harm the public and the public’s interest in good science for the case to succeed,” since scientists should be able to check each other’s work without risk of litigation.