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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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?
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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.)
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I don’t like Twitter. There, I said it. I know, I know, it’s so revolutionary, it’s bridging social gaps, it’s God’s gift to the information age, blah blah blah. That’s all well and good, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just an outlet for self-righteous blather. As if the whole world needs to sit up and hear about what YOU think about foreign policy or what YOUR opinion is about the new Britney Spears album. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it, but don’t be surprised if I don’t, because I probably don’t care.

Not only are most tweets nothing but pompous drivel, they are boring. Boring and utterly pointless. Take this random tweet I just found, after about one second of looking, for your reading pleasure: “Going to have a normal day today. A little cleaning, kids are playing outside, and maybe the park. Nothing too ambitious. I think we all need it.” Awesome.

Now, you probably think I’m a bitter cynic. You probably don’t like me. That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it (but please, in the name of all that is holy, don’t tweet about it). And at this point, maybe your natural inclination is to say, “OK, James, but what makes you so special that I, dear reader, should care about you? After all, isn’t this whole article just a big long diatribe about your personal opinion?” Well, maybe a little. But it’s my article, so deal with it. Besides, it’s supposed to be ironic, so it’s funny, like a joke. More importantly, there’s a very real legal issue brewing beneath the surface here.

Lately, there has been a rash of defamation lawsuits based on allegedly defamatory tweets. This is not surprising given Twitter’s meteoric rise in popularity. For a recent example, look no further than the lawsuit just brought by Notifi Records CEO, Ira DeWitt, against former New Edition singer Johnny Gill for alleged defamation on Twitter. The singer is alleged to have attacked the reputation of DeWitt and her company by tweeting that she was “deranged” and “f**king nuts,” that Notifi was a fake company, and that she had a “hard on” for the producer of an unreleased Gill single.

There is no doubt that Mr. Gill’s alleged tweets aren’t very nice. But are they actionable as defamation? Probably not.
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Sadly, “shocking” racist or bigoted celebrity tirades no longer make for shocking news. Even if the Constitution can’t protect them in the court of public opinion, celebrities like Mel GibsonMichael Richards, andTracy Morgan are lucky enough to live in America, where the First Amendment protects them from legal consequences for the absurd things that come out of their mouths. John Galliano, on the other hand? Not so lucky. He could face jail time for his recent anti-Semitic and racist rants.

The former creative director of French fashion house Christian Dior was arrested in February for allegedly shouting anti-Jewish and racist insults at a couple at a bar in Paris. He also allegedly exchanged slaps with the couple. Galliano was immediately fired from his position at Christian Dior and ostracized from the fashion community. Shortly after the incident, Galliano ended up in rehab (which is now apparently a cure for everything from alcoholism to racism to not being able to stop once you pop). In court, Galliano claimed that he was an alcoholic and drug addict, and that these addictions caused him to make the racist rants (of which he supposedly has no memory). Galliano is being charged with making “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity” — a type of prohibition which was widely adopted throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust — and could face up tosix months in prison.

Although Galliano is, in practice, unlikely to see a jail cell even if he’s convicted, the fact that it’s a possibility at all is more-than-mildly perplexing to us Americans who are used to having free reign to make comments like that — usually either on a stand-up stage, while being arrested for something else, or on Fox News — without the threat of prosecution. So when can you go to jail for speech in America?
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Even before Natalie Portman won her Best Actress Oscar for her role in Black Swan, critics and audiences alike were buzzing about her disturbing performance as a dedicated-but-delusional prima ballerina. Recently, however, the discussion of Portman’s performance has taken a turn towards the controversial, as Sarah Lane — an American Ballet Theater soloist and one of Portman’s Black Swan dance doubles — has emerged with allegations that Portman did just 5% of the full body dance shots seen in the finished film.

Lane claims she is the victim of a “cover-up” by the filmmakers. Although she commends Portman for trying “to go method” and losing “a lot of weight” for the film, Lane blasts her single’s dancing (if Lane is Portman’s double, doesn’t that make Portman Lane’s single?), saying Portman didn’t look “at all” like a professional dancer and couldn’t even dance in pointe shoes. Lane’s comments came just days after Portman’s choreographer-slash-baby-daddy Benjamin Millepied boasted to the Los Angeles Times that Lane did only a very minimal amount of dancing in the film and that “Honestly, 85 percent of that movie is Natalie.” Since Lane made her “5%” claim, however, the film’s producers, director and co-stars have come to Portman’s defense, with director Darren Aronofsky issuing a statement yesterday saying that of the 139 dance shots in the film, 111 — or, 80% — are Portman untouched, and when you consider screen time, 90% of the dancing is Portman.

Even if all the “did she or didn’t she” discussion surrounding Portman’s Oscar and dance performance misses the real issue — namely, that this should have been Annette Benning’s year — it did get me thinking about the use of doubles in film, and what potential legal claims actors and their doubles might have when situations like this arise.
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If you’re a dedicated politico or a devoted reader of Law Law Land, you’ll remember the saga of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official who was unceremoniously fired by the Obama administration in July 2010 after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted an incendiary video to his site in which the African-American Sherrod seemingly confessed to discriminating against a farmer because he
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