“I’m going to decline to give you permission to reproduce my correspondence.”
A Conversation with Vox in Which They Send a Lawyer at Me
These letters are part of a set of letters issued to New York Magazine in response to their reporting on false memory and repressed memory. For greater context, and to see all letters, please start here.
Immediately after sending my letter to the editor to The Cut, I began hearing from others who had sent their own letters that had never seen the light of day. I started collecting them in one place, which which would become this maddeningly-ongoing story.
I asked each writer whether The Cut had responded at all. At that point, only Elizabeth Loftus — a memory researcher who had been quoted in the story and had written her own critique — told me editor Ted Hart had, in fact, responded. She sent his rather boring reply, which you can read here.
On January 27th, I emailed Hart once again:
To follow up: I am told by Elizabeth Loftus, Lucien Greaves, and the Center for Inquiry that you have not printed their rebuttal letters. In the interest of readers being able to read other perspectives, I plan to post all four letters together in a Medium piece. I would also like to include your reply to Loftus, and any other replies you care to share with me.
Before I do that, I wanted to check with you and see if you plan to print any of these four rebuttal letters, or if you wanted to send me any additional context for how you choose which letters are worthy of publication.
Exactly one hour later, I received Ted Hart’s reply:
“Dear Ms. Poppy,
While you’re more than welcome to publish your views on Katie Heaney’s report in whatever venue you would like, and to include the letters of those who have given you permission to do so, I’m going to decline to give you permission to reproduce my correspondence with Dr. Loftus.
This is, to use an industry term, weird. While I did say I would “like to” print his letter, I did not need his permission. I simply wanted to make sure I had the whole story; that I wasn’t missing anything from The Cut’s point of view.
I called my lawyer, Matthew Strugar. One of Matthew’s specialties is free speech law, especially as it pertains to reporters, activists, and professional critics. (He also does incredible work fighting unjust, unconstitutional, and homophobic “sodomy laws” across the country, but that’s just a side note on how cool Matthew is.)
Our conversation went something like this.
Me: This guy at New York Magazine is trying to say I can’t print his email. That he, uh, “declines” to give me “permission.”
Me: He can’t do that… right?
Matthew (loud): Of course not!
Me: Okay. Thanks. Do I owe you money for this phone call?
Matthew: No. Don’t Venmo me a dollar again.
Me: Okay. Can I copy you on this response?
Matthew: Only if you sign it “Go fuck yourself.”
Me: Okay, I’m not gonna do that. Byyyeeee!
A few minutes later, I replied to Mr. Hart:
“Are you retroactively asserting that your communication with Loftus was privileged in some way? As I’m sure you know, I don’t require your permission to publish your email, but I am surprised that you object, seeing as it’s the only defense of your work you’ve made that I know of. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
The irony of you publishing an article that paints Loftus as some kind of rape apologist, ignores Greaves’ response entirely, and uncritically repeats life-altering accusations, then not “giving” me “permission” to post your letter defending your methods is not lost on me.
CCing my lawyer, who asked me to include a line I am too polite to include.”
Within an hour, I was suddenly forced-penpals with Vox’s legal associate, Elissa Cohen (Vox owns New York Magazine and The Cut).
“Dear Ms. Poppy:
I am an Assistant General Counsel at Vox Media, publisher of New York magazine and your recent correspondence to Ted Hart (below) was forwarded to me. I have also copied Mr. Strugar on this correspondence, as I assume him to be the lawyer you referenced.
No, Mr. Hart is not asserting any form of privilege. He is, however, asserting his ownership of the letter that he wrote — which you do not have the right to publish. As a writer, I’m sure you understand but if not, I’m sure Mr. Strugar can readily explain.
Should you have any further substantive questions about the article, you may address them to me.”
Now mildly seething but only slightly wishing I had adopted Matthew’s sign-off, I replied:
“That’s not even remotely how this works. I’m not publishing his letter in isolation, hoping to pass it off as my own or make money off it as a Work of Brilliant Prose. It is clearly fair use in this context. I suspect you know this and hope that I do not.”
At this point, I picture three or four beleaguered lawyers in button-down shirts and yoga pants, talking over one another on a Zoom call as they discuss how to get around the fact that I have called their bluff. A little over an hour later, I received this from Ms. Cohen:
“That is certainly an interesting interpretation of the fair use factors. We typically don’t feel the need to publish business correspondence in which professionals disagree, and we lean towards not wholesale copying someone else’s document, but we understand that your barometer might be different. We wish you well.”
“And I you,” I replied.
A week later, I asked Cohen and Hart if they would be printing any of the letters they’d received. I didn’t know lawyers get paid by the word, too, but Elissa Cohen took 1,203 characters to essentially say “no.” She closed out with this: “You and others have your own platforms and audiences and means of communicating with them, where you are free to disagree with any of the conclusions, opinions or material considered.”
“Is that a no?” I replied.
Immediately, Matthew (still CCed) texted me, “Yes, it is.”
“I KNOW THAT!” I replied.
They’re not the only ones who can write redundant emails.
But even though this is an amusing Annoying-Emails story, and a frustrating Big Outlet Flexing Unnecessarily story, it is much more concerning as a Reportorial Standards story.
Thousands of people — mostly women — have survived “recovered memories” resurfacing, been cheered on by their therapists, friends, and “allies” to confront their “abusers” (usually parents) and accuse them of horrifying abuse, and some parents have even gone to prison on no corroborating evidence. This is a horrifying and deeply antiscientific thing to do to a hurting loved one, who must now live with her confusion, distrust, and murky sense of responsibility for what has happened. Many go on to recant their accusations. Many families never repair.
While child abuse is, undoubtedly, a terrifyingly common crime that should be rooted out at every available opportunity, inviting bad science into the conversation hurts the child, the parent, and everyone else. Reporting on such a story without consulting all sides with an open mind is a dereliction of duty.