An End to 'Lott v. Levitt'? Don't Jump the Gun

August 01, 2007

Yet more developments in John R. Lott Jr.’s libel lawsuit against Steven D. Levitt. (For the uninitiated, this April 2006 Chronicle article sketches the two economists’ long-running quarrel and the early weeks of the lawsuit.)

On Tuesday a federal judge in Chicago rejected a motion, filed last week by Mr. Lott, that asked the court to reconsider its January dismissal of Mr. Lott’s claim that Mr. Levitt defamed him in his best-selling book Freakonomics. The court also accepted the two parties’ settlement of the only remaining count in the case, which concerned Mr. Levitt’s alleged defamation of Mr. Lott in an e-mail message to a colleague in 2005.

So the litigation is over, right? Not so fast. Mr. Lott’s lawyers have fired yet another salvo, asking the court for permission to file an amended complaint on the Freakonomics-related count.

According to the motion, new facts have come to Mr. Lott’s attention since last year that significantly alter the character of his complaint. For one thing, he says, new information has come out about what he calls Mr. Levitt’s malice toward him. The motion alleges that Mr. Levitt has publicly referred to Mr. Lott as “the anti-Christ” and that Mr. Levitt “offered publicly to pay colleagues if they would humiliate” Mr. Lott. (Mr. Levitt did not immediately reply to a request for comment today.)

The motion also says that Mr. Lott has suffered reputational damage in his professional community because of Freakonomics. Mr. Lott “has encountered persons in job interviews and at academic seminars,” the motion reads, “who indicated that they had read the statements and innuendo, who indicated that they believed the statements and innuendo were true.” This reputational damage allows Mr. Lott to add a claim of “libel per quod” to his complaint.

And for the first time in the litigation, Mr. Lott directly tackles the question of a national telephone survey that he allegedly conducted in 1997. Mr. Lott cited data from that survey in the second edition of his book More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press). But in 2002, several scholars, led by the late sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan, investigated the matter and suggested that Mr. Lott had never conducted such a survey. (It was amid that dispute that Mr. Lott’s pseudonymous online persona of “Mary Rosh” was discovered.)

Mr. Lott has never brought forward conclusive evidence that he conducted the survey, which ostensibly involved nearly 2,500 telephone interviews over a three-month period. But he has heatedly denied the skeptics’ claims, saying that all records of the survey were lost in a computer crash in 1997. The fact of the computer crash has been corroborated by editors at the Chicago press.

In Freakonomics, Mr. Levitt obliquely refers to the dispute over the telephone survey. In the new motion, for the first time, Mr. Lott says that that passage’s innuendo is false and defamatory. —David Glenn