Posts In "Defamation"

Defamation




A “Dirty” Lawsuit: How a Sex Scandal Could Impact Online Defamation Law

A former high school teacher and NFL cheerleader sleeps with her student.  She faces widespread scorn, including scathing Internet comments.  Despite the scorn, she becomes engaged to the student.

It sounds like the plot of a made-for-TV movie.  But these facts form the basis of a landmark defamation lawsuit that could have ramifications for any website that allows users to post comments.

  Continue reading the full story . . . »

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Miss Universe Pageant Scores Big Against Former Contestant

The Quaker State can be proud of many things.  The Liberty Bell.  Andy Warhol.  Tastykake.  Trading Places.  The Immaculate Reception.  But one part of its history that Pennsylvania may wish to forget (besides dog killer Michael Vick) is the garrulous young woman chosen to represent the state in the Miss USA pageant — Sheena Monnin.  Last month, a New York arbitrator found that Monnin defamed the Miss Universe organization when she claimed that the show had been rigged and ordered her to pay $5 million in damages.  Everyone knows that beauty pageants are big business (and were even before Honey Boo Boo tragically became a household name).  But how did they suddenly become the setting for big damages awards too?

“Fraudulent, Lacking in Morals, Inconsistent, and in Many Ways Trashy”

Monnin participated in the Miss USA competition and was not one of the semifinalists selected by the pageant judges.  A different panel of celebrity judges then chose the five finalists, including the eventual Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo of Rhode Island.

Sheena-MonninMoments after learning she had not been chosen as a semifinalist, Monnin sent an email to the director of the Miss Pennsylvania USA Pageant, Randy Sanders, claiming that the contest had been “f-ing rigged Randy.”  (Wouldn’t be surprised if this phrase becomes part of the vernacular.)  Monnin resigned as Miss Pennsylvania the next day.  As her reason, she stated that the pageant system had “removed itself from its foundational principles” by allowing transgendered contestants.  That night, she publicly announced her resignation on Facebook, stating that she wanted no affiliation with an organization that was “fraudulent, lacking in morals, inconsistent, and in many ways trashy” — a sentiment that sounds like it could just as easily be a review of the clientele at many Hollywood nightclubs.

In a second Facebook post, she provided a new rationale for her resignation:  the show had been rigged.  As evidence, Monnin gave details of a conversation with another contestant who purportedly had found a list naming the top five finalists prior to the final judging.

Not surprisingly, these comments received much media attention.  Monnin repeated her accusations on NBC’s Today Show, which is broadcast nationally.

Given that allegations of corruption in judging are nothing new and are rarely substantiated (the 2002 Winter Olympics figure skating scandal notwithstanding), the Miss Universe officials might have let this go after Monnin ignored the group’s offer to review the judging process with her.  Forgiveness, however, was no longer on the agenda after the organization allegedly lost a potential $5 million sponsor who purportedly pulled out after expressing concern about the “rigging” allegations.

Continue reading the full story . . . »


The NFL’s Biggest Bounty?

After being barred from going after opposing quarterbacks in 2012, Jonathan Vilma is now going after the biggest bounty of them all — NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell.  Last week, Vilma sued Goodell for defamation based on Goodell’s accusations that Vilma participated in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.

As any self-respecting sports fan (or anyone else who doesn’t live here) knows by now, the NFL recently discovered that Saints coaches and players created a system by which the players would receive monetary bonuses for knocking opposing players out of a game with injury.  (And you know a scandal is serious when it gets its own Wikipedia page.)  Goodell claims Vilma was at the center of that program, going so far as to promise $10,000 of his own money to anyone who knocked Brett Favre (and later Kurt Warner) out of a playoff game.  Vilma insists that he did not take part in the bounty program, that he never offered money to his teammates to take out Brett Favre or Kurt Warner and that Goodell had no reasonable basis on which to make those allegations.  Vilma seeks unspecified damages for the harm to his reputation caused by Goodell’s statements.

As my regular readers (somebody must read this stuff, right?) should know by now, I’m a football fan, so the idea of an NFL player suing the almighty Roger Goodell is fascinating stuff.  Since becoming commissioner in 2006, Goodell has become the judge, jury and executioner regarding player (and coach) misconduct.  Players who get in trouble must go meet with Goodell (presumably to kiss the brass ring, or maybe just something that rhymes with the “brass” part) and then await his punishment without any rules or guidelines on how that punishment will be administered.  But don’t worry:  if the player (or coach) believes the punishment is unjust, he can always appeal to — guess who? — Goodell.  Although Goodell has, on occasion, reduced a player’s punishment, it happens rarely and there is little explanation of why.  (Doesn’t really seem fair to me, but I’m just a Bills fan…and Bills players never do anything wrong…  Or, in recent years, right.)  It’s safe to assume that more than one NFL player out there (like Goodell’s BFF James Harrison) would offer a chunk out of his salary to have someone take Goodell down a peg or twelve.

So, the real question for us here at Law Law Land is:  does Vilma stand any chance of winning and forcing Goodell to change his ways?  Probably not.  Here’s why.

Continue reading the full story . . . »


Q&A: What Are the Risks of Using Actors to Portray Real People in a Fictionalized Bio-Pic?

Q:  What are the legalities of using actors to portray real people in a film — a fictionalized bio-pic in which the main character is purely fiction but some of the other characters are real, both living and deceased?  For example, if Forrest Gumpdid not use actual footage but instead chose to represent those scenes using actors to represent the famous people?

A:  I really liked Forrest Gump when I saw it.  I’m pretty sure I even cried in it.  Now I hate it for some reason.  Maybe it’s just a general backlash against Tom Hanks’ haircut in The Da Vinci Code.  But let’s not get into that.

As to your question…we Americans generally think we all have a 1st Amendment right that gives us the ability to say what we please when we please, which has lead to such enlightening phenomena as Ashton Kutcher’s constant Tweeting (thanks a lot, Founding Fathers).  What is important to understand, however, is that this right of free speech is not absolute.  We are not always free to say what we please, especially when it comes to saying things about other people.

Before answering your question, a word of warning:  whether or not your depiction of a real person in a film can open you up to liability is not a question that has a definite answer.  It requires a fact specific analysis and even then, it may not be entirely clear how strong of a ground you stand on.  Also, you’ve got to remember that we’re dealing with people and people are nuts.  Thus, even if it appears you’ve done everything by the books and you’re legally justified in doing what you’re doing, you could still get sued by someone who didn’t like the way you depicted him or her in a movie.

Continue reading the full story . . . »


What’s in a Tweet? #Social Media, #Free Speech and #Schools

Our Law Law Land readers have been well-educated on the law of defamation as it relates to Twitter, and on the opinion of one of our bloggers that “Twitter sucks.” (I used to agree, and even though I’m coming around to Twitter slowly, I must say I still prefer Facebook as my time-vacuum, overshare medium of choice.) So when you all read about Kansas high schooler Emma Sullivan tweeting about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,” you knew she wouldn’t be liable for defamation because she was expressing an opinion, not making a statement of fact.

Maybe Governor Brownback’s staff should read our site a little more often too. The fact that Sullivan’s tweet didn’t meet the test for defamation didn’t stop them from notifying Emma Sullivan’s school principal about her tweet (sent to her legion of 60 followers!). In turn, the principal notified Sullivan that she needed to write an apology to the governor by Monday, November 28. On Monday, the Shawnee Mission School District issued a statement that Emma Sullivan did not need to write an apology to the governor but saying this issue presented “many teachable moments” about the use of social media. Sullivan, for her part, came forward — with, what else, a tweet — to state for the record that she would not apologize to the governor (“I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong”). Then an apology on Facebook ended up coming from the governor himself, who evidently decided not to run for reelection on his staff’s “silence the teenagers” platform when he declared, “My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, people’s reactions have ranged from celebration of Emma Sullivan’s exercise of her free speech rights, to criticism of the Big Brother-esque nature of Brownback’s staff’s vigilance of his name in social media, to the sentiment that Sullivan was being rude, to agreement that Brownback “does suck.” (Oh, to go back to those innocent days where you believed your online postings were “private!”) So, given that she is a student, what limits are there on Sullivan’s speech? Continue reading the full story . . . »


In Defense of Lindsay Lohan (But Not of Her Legal Claims)

I love Lindsay Lohan. Really, I do. I think she’s funny, smart, and an all around good time waiting to happen. Sure, as an actress, she’s had her share of ups and downs. But who hasn’t? As a singer…well…mostly just downs. She’s also been unrelentingly stalked by paparazzi for the entirety of her adult life, getting caught in far more than her share of compromising moments in the process. Well I say, leave Lindsay alone! If I had cameras following me since before I started shaving, I can assure you, it would not be pretty either (riotously entertaining, yes, but not pretty). So I try to cut Lindsay a lot of slack. But man, oh man, is her latest escapade testing the limits of my adoration.

Fresh off settling her lawsuit against E*Trade for a Super Bowl ad featuring a “milkaholic” baby named Lindsay and threatening (via Momager Dina Lohan) to sue the producers of Glee for some off-color Lohan-based Spanish lessons, Lindsay recently filed suit against rapper Pitbull for using her name in his song “Give Me Everything.” The offending lyric in question: “Hustlers move aside, so I’m tiptoein’, to keep flowin’ / I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan.” Frankly, it is difficult to fully convey the absurdity of this lawsuit. Nevertheless, my enduring loyalty demands that I try.

Holding my nose and looking a little deeper, I see there are two claims apparently being made here: defamation and right of publicity. (From the outset, I should note that Pitbull’s stated defense of  “I thought it would be helping [her] career and keeping [her] relevant”doesn’t fly.) But let’s parse each claim and see if there’s any chance that my hero will succeed. (Spoiler Alert!!! No, there is not.) Continue reading the full story . . . »