Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, who was accused of sexual harassment last year and has adamantly denied the charges, has filed a lawsuit against the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the group’s executive director, Lin Oliver. The suit charges that Oliver and SCBWI made "false and defamatory statements about him that unfairly damaged his reputation and career," his attorney, Patrick L. Fisher of Sitrick and Company, said in a statement released today. Asher seeks monetary damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit has been filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and alleges that last February, Oliver falsely told the Associated Press the organization conducted an “investigation” and Asher was “found to have violated the SCBWI code of conduct in regard to harassment.” Asher and his lawyer allege that SCBWI did not conduct an investigation, and Asher did not violate the SCBWI code of conduct.
“The executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators made reckless and false statements about me to the news media, greatly harming my family, career, and reputation," Asher said in a statement. "I do not condone harassment of any sort, and have spent my entire career standing up for its victims, so these statements were devastating. Today, I filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles to set the record straight. Ms. Oliver’s statements were completely false and I look forward to proving that in court.”
According to the lawsuit, anonymous emails were sent to Oliver in April 2017 accusing Asher of using SCBWI conferences to "lure women into physical relationships and making unspecified threats to get them to stay quiet." These allegations, Asher and his lawyer allege, were false. "These women voluntarily entered into—and in some instances initiated—relationships with Mr. Asher. He did not offer to help these women professionally, and they were not his subordinates. There was no harassment by Mr. Asher at any point of these relationships," Asher and his lawyer continued in their statement. When Oliver—following, according to Asher, "more than nine months" of "no action" taken regarding Asher's membership in the SCBWI and, later, a suggestion from Oliver that he "renew his membership" after it expired in 2017—spoke to the AP in February 2018, she "issued a false and defamatory statement to the news media," the suit alleges.
"SCBWI failed to conduct an investigation of any kind, and intentionally ignored evidence that would have shown Mr. Asher was completely innocent," Fisher, Asher's attorney, said in a statement. "Instead, SCBWI recklessly issued a false statement—in the heat of the 'Me-Too' movement—that unfairly damaged the reputation and career of one of the country’s most successful young adult authors. We look forward to presenting these facts to a jury."
In response, the SCBWI alleged that "Jay Asher’s lawsuit appears to be an attempt by Asher to repair his name and reputation after it became public that his private actions were inconsistent with his public persona of being an advocate and ally of women" in a statement issued to PW by Andrew Baum, a lawyer representing Oliver and the society. It continued: "SCBWI received an email anonymously signed by seven of our female members stating that they had all had affairs with Jay Asher and several felt threatened and intimidated into silence by him. Asher confirmed that he had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple fellow SCBWI members. As a result, Asher and SCBWI agreed that he would no longer be on faculty at, present at, or attend, any future SCBWI events. We believe the lawsuit is entirely without merit and it will be vigorously defended."
Accusations against Asher first emerged in the comments section of a January 2018 article in School Library Journal, "Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks," which saw a surge of comments claiming instances of harassment against various authors following the February 2018 publication of an article title "Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry," posted to the Medium publishing platform by children's author Anne Ursu. The AP's story reporting his expulsion from the SCBWI for violating its code of conduct in manners that constituted sexual harassment broke shortly after, and Asher later responded in BuzzFeed, claiming that he left the organization on his own volition and that he was the one who had been harassed. (An updated SCBWI code of conduct was issued last year.) In the following days, a spokesperson for Asher released multiple statements to PW flatly denying Oliver's statement, and continued to do so upon any mention of the allegations in later reporting.
Asher's prior statements, and the language of the lawsuit, contradict not only the SCBWI's statements and the anonymous accusations in the comments section of the January 2018 School Library Journal article, but also correspondence PW has received from a number of sources, which have been previously reported. Those sources—some of whom spoke to PW on condition of anonymity—alleged, among other things, that Asher's reputation was well known, even by his publisher, Penguin Young Readers, but tolerated. (A Penguin Young Readers spokesperson, when contacted last year, vigorously denied that the imprint had any knowledge of misconduct by Asher.) PW's reporting on the matter was referenced in the lawsuit.
Fallout from the allegations was mixed. Asher's former agent, Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, dropped him as a client at the time, although his publisher did not. Some bookstores, but not all of those contacted by PW, removed Asher's books from their shelves. The Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why was not cancelled, and has been renewed for a third season.
This is the second lawsuit to come from an author accused of sexual harassment or assault in the wake of the #MeToo movement, at the start of which PW found that many in the book business consider sexual misconduct to be a serious issue in the industry. The first was filed in the Eastern District of New York last October by Stephen Elliott against Moira Donegan, creator of the crowdsourced Google spreadsheet called the "Shitty Media Men" list, and "Jane Does (1–30)" seeking damages for libel and "emotional distress." That lawsuit entered a new phase this week, as the Hollywood Reporter reported, when Elliott and his lawyers moved forward with attempts to obtain a court-ordered subpoena to force Google to "produce electronically stored information" naming "the identity of the anonymous woman who accused him of rape, sexual harassment and coercion."
This article has been updated with further information.