Mass. District Court Decision: Harvard/MIT Lawsuit Will Go Forward

November 8, 2016 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: June 3, 2019


In another huge victory for web accessibility advocates everywhere, on November 4, 2016, Judge Mark G. Mastroianni of the District Court of Massachusetts accepted Magistrate Judge Robertson’s recommendation to deny Harvard and MIT’s motion to dismiss the closed captioning lawsuit brought against them by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

Essentially, now that a District Court judge has finally made a decision to deny Harvard and MIT’s major pre-trial argument, the case will likely go forward to court soon.

Harvard/MIT’s Argument

In the initial lawsuit, NAD and the other plaintiffs complained that “the institution[s] discriminate against deaf and hard of hearing people by failing to caption the vast and varied array of online content they make available to the general public, including massive open online courses (MOOCs).”

Judge Mastroianni’s decision rejected the argument Harvard and MIT put forth to dismiss the NAD’s complaint, that the two academic giants were “entitled to statutory exemptions for accommodations that impose an unreasonable financial or administrative burden, or require a fundamental change in the good at issue.”

Having fully adopted Judge Robertson’s findings, Judge Mastroianni’s retorted by stating Harvard’s and MIT’s argument was “inappropriate for resolution on a motion to dismiss. A motion to dismiss addresses the plausibility of a plaintiff’s claims, not the strength of a defendant’s affirmative defenses.”

In other words, Harvard/MIT claimed that the lawsuit was invalid, stating that captioning the video content of their free online courses to the NAD’s standards (which draw from federal accessibility laws) would cost them an unfair amount of resources. Judge Robertson (whose decision was backed by the Department of Justice) and Judge Mastroianni disagreed.


This exciting news foreshadows a potential advantage for the NAD and the other plaintiffs involved in this high profile case.

And now that the case can continue, we’re a little closer to a potential settlement or (less ideally) an extensive legal battle between Harvard/MIT and the NAD, et al.

If the NAD wins, it will set a new precedent in higher education confirming that the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act Section 504 closed captioning requirements do apply to MOOCs and other online content that schools make open to the public.

Download the research study results on student uses and perceptions of closed captions & transcripts

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