Yesterday, Judge Ruben Castillo dismissed Count I of Lott’s defamation lawsuit against Levitt but not Count II. Count I is based on the sentence on page 134 of Freakonomics; Count II is based on Levitt’s e-mail to economist John McCall.
In the discussion of Count I, Judge Castillo determined the sentence is not defamatory because it is capable of an “innocent construction.” He said:
Lott claims that the following sentence in Freakonomics is defamatory per se: “When other scholars have tried to replicate [Lott’s] results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don’t bring down crime.” Lott argues that the only reasonable meaning of the last sentence is that he falsified his results because “the term ‘replicate’ has an objective and factual meaning in the world of academic research and scholarship.” Specifically, Lott claims that the “clear and unambiguous meaning” of “replicate” is that “other scholars have analyzed the identical data that Lott analyzed and analyzed it the way Lott did in order to determine whether they can reach the same result.” By claiming that other scholars have tried to “replicate” his research and results, but come to a different conclusion than Lott, Lott claims that the sentence in Freakonomics alleges that “Lott falsified his results.”
The applicable standard, however, is not that of the “world of academic research and scholarship” that Lott describes. Rather, the critical question is how a “reasonable reader” would interpret the phrase. The reasonable reader in this case is the general population, who helped make Freakonomics an “extraordinary successful,” “best-selling book.” In everyday language, replicating “results” does not necessarily mean analyzing identical data in identical ways, and thus it is reasonable to read the sentence at issue as not accusing Lott of falsifying his results. In fact, it is more reasonable to read the sentence as stating that other scholars testing the same hypothesis have done separate research, with possibly different data and statistical analyses, and come to different conclusions, thus disproving Lott’s theory; or simply, that other scholars attempted to arrive at the same conclusions as Lott had, but were unable to do so.
Lott v. Levitt, No. 09 C 2007, slip. op. at 6-7 (N.D. Ill. filed Jan. 11, 2007) (internal citations omitted).
The court referred to Levitt’s e-mail to McCall as “unfortunate and ill-considered” and refused to dismiss Count II.
John Lott has a copy of the decision on his website. Lott’s response: “I think that the market for the book was also aimed at academics. The book is apparently marketed to a large number of economics classes and is read by academics.”
H/T to Tim Lambert