NOEL KING, HOST:
It's been two years since allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein started the #MeToo movement. Around that time, writer and activist Moira Donegan created a Google spreadsheet with the names of men who worked in media who were accused of harassment, groping and rape. All of those accusations were made anonymously, and Donegan took the spreadsheet down within about 12 hours, but copies had already been downloaded and shared. Writer Stephen Elliott was one of the men on the list, and now he's suing Donegan for defamation. Elizabeth Blair has the story. And just a quick warning - this may not be appropriate for younger listeners.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Stephen Elliott has written extensively about his own destructive behavior. His books have received gushing reviews. The New York Times wrote that Elliott's novel "Happy Baby" is the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs. Kirkus called "The Adderall Diaries" an endlessly fascinating memoir by a profoundly courageous writer. In a movie inspired by "The Adderall Diaries," James Franco plays Elliott; Cynthia Nixon plays his agent.
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CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Jen Davis) So you wrote all that in two days.
JAMES FRANCO: (As Stephen Elliott) Yeah. I mean, I put it down on paper in two days, but, I mean, this is the book that I've been wanting to write. I just didn't know that until now.
BLAIR: Stephen Elliott was one of the men named on Moira Donegan's "Media Men" list.
STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I kind of stopped introducing myself as a writer, actually.
BLAIR: Elliott says when he first saw that he was accused of rape, he thought it was ludicrous.
ELLIOTT: I knew that was false. Like, I knew not only that I had not ever raped anybody but also that there was nobody out there that thought I raped them.
BLAIR: Elliott says the literary community turned on him. He says he was uninvited from book events. Media coverage planned for a new book he had coming out was canceled. And he claims his agents dropped him. Sources close to his agents deny he was dropped because of the list.
ELLIOTT: I just realized that, yeah, like, my community was not going to engage with me on this in good faith, you know. Like, you're accused of rape. You're on the "[expletive] Media Men" list. You're canceled. You cannot - you know, you cannot be in this community anymore. So then I realized that, like, well, I guess the only way to clear my name is to file a lawsuit.
BLAIR: Elliott filed a defamation lawsuit against Moira Donegan and the Jane Doe's who contributed to the list. Donegan declined to be interviewed. Her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, says the goal of the list was to protect women from sexual predators in their industry.
ROBERTA KAPLAN: So that if a certain guy who you worked for was on the list, you would know not to go out to drinks with him or not to be alone in a room that you might be compromised with him in. And it was really meant as a kind of a warning and as a protection mechanism.
BLAIR: At the top of the spreadsheet, Donegan included a disclaimer that reads (reading) this document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you're friends with, don't freak out.
KAPLAN: What Moira was doing in this list was a very good faith effort, not to try to get men in trouble but to protect women from not being in these situations going forward. And under the First Amendment, given the fact that she did it in good faith and given the fact that that was her motive, she can't be sued for doing it.
BLAIR: Kaplan has filed a motion to dismiss Elliott's defamation suit. A date for oral arguments on that motion has not been set. Remember, the list circulated just as the #MeToo movement was reaching its peak. For women fired up by the #MeToo movement, the "Media Men" list was seen as a necessary agitator.
DEIRDRE COYLE: I was really happy that it existed.
BLAIR: Deirdre Coyle is a writer who says she did not contribute to the "Media Men" list, but she did see it and was glad the name of the man she alleges raped her, and other women she knows, was on it. He was a freelance journalist.
COYLE: A few editors reached out to me who had worked with him in the past to say that they would not work with him again and in some cases that they were warning other editors they knew not to work with him, which I appreciated.
BLAIR: Some of the men on the list lost their jobs; some are still working; some disappeared from public life.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's breached every corner of my life.
BLAIR: I reached out to several men on the list. Only one other agreed to record an interview on the condition that his name not be used. He denies the allegations.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Being accused of sexual assault is a really difficult thing to deal with. It makes you call into questions every potential or actualized romantic or sexual relationship, every interaction that I've had. You know, I've spent months just thinking through every thing that I had ever done and looking for something that would back it up. When you're accused if something like that, it's hard not to suspect yourself, I guess, in the same way that other people might suspect you.
BLAIR: You know, there are some people who would hear what you just said and say, well, good. Men do need to think more about everything they do.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I agree. I think that the goals of the list and things like the list really require men to take a hard look at, you know, the way that they treat people that they are in sexual relationships with and people that they are in professional relationships with.
BLAIR: As for Stephen Elliott's defamation lawsuit against the list creator, Moira Donegan, a judge gave Elliott permission to subpoena Google for the names of the anonymous contributors. A spokesperson tells NPR Google objects to the subpoena. Elliott's lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, says this case isn't just about the "Media Men" list. It's about anonymous allegations of serious offenses that can stay online forever.
ANDREW MILTENBERG: This could be any of us. This could be - any one of us in any of our professions could be anonymously attacked over and over again until our reputation is destroyed.
BLAIR: But anonymous allegations might be the strongest tool the #MeToo movement has. When women do report sexual misconduct at work, 1 in 3 say they faced retaliation. That's according to the National Women's Law Center. The only way to understand the scope of the problem, says writer Deirdre Coyle, is to let women name names anonymously.
COYLE: Any kind of broad sweeping change is not going to be perfect. It may have some negative consequences, but for change to happen, something like this needed to happen. That's my opinion.
BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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