Supermarket tabloids compete with each other in a lot of ways. Who can attract the most readers/eyeballs? Who can come up with the most misleading headline? Who can stretch the definition of “news” to the most absurd degree? But one of the strangest and most downright disturbing areas of competition among tabloids has to be, who can be first to out a celebrity?

In many instances, well-known entertainers have been driven into public revelations about deeply private aspects of their lives after relentless speculation and intrusion from aggressive tabloids and their dubious “sources.” In 2006, ‘N Sync alum Lance Bass finally came out of the closet after years spent hiding his sexuality to appease his female fans and strategic handlers (and the world was duly shocked). Clay Aiken, who rose to fame after placing second on that little show called American Idol, waited until becoming a father to publicly disclose his sexual orientation in 2008. And last year, Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin ended years of public scrutiny and speculation by announcing to the world that he is “a fortunate homosexual man,” forcing an immediate public reevaluation of the lyrics to such modern classics as “Shake Your Bon-Bon” and “She Bangs.”

Lance, Ricky, and Clay decided to come out on their own terms (notwithstanding the slight nudge [read: “very, very forceful shove”] from the Hollywood gossipmongers). But as Law Law Land superfan/mother to our very own Rachel Wilkes recently asked us, what would happen if someone in the know publicly outed a celebrity before that celebrity was ready to do so themselves? Could the furor over that celebrity’s sexual preferences move from the gossip rags to the courthouse docket? Let’s take a look at a recent example.
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You’ve probably heard about the recent class action lawsuit filed against Taco Bell, alleging that their tacos don’t really contain beef (or, rather, contain only 33% beef, plus a variety of “extenders” and “non-meat substances” ranging from “autolyzed yeast extract” to silicon dioxide, a.k.a. sand). (Presumably, this will be an easier plaintiff class to recruit than the potential plaintiffs in the YouPorn/“History Sniffing” lawsuit we reported on last month. But maybe I’m overestimating people’s willingness to admit eating Taco Bell.) According to the lawsuit, Taco Bell is misleading the public by saying its products contain “real beef” when, in fact, the products only contain the appetizingly-named “taco meat filling.” Although I find it hard to believe that anyone might have actually decided to go to Taco Bell thinking their taco was going to be 100% beef (it’s fast food, people!), these types of lawsuits are quite common, and the legal foundation of the claim is fairly straightforward.

Boiled down to its essence, Taco Bell is accused of trying to mislead the public about the quality of its product. Legally, Taco Bell’s statements about its meat are considered “commercial speech” — Taco Bell is trying to get people to buy tacos (well…“tacos,” anyway). The First Amendment provides limited protection for commercial speech, and rule #1 is: you have to tell the truth. So, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission can pass laws restricting what fast food chains can and cannot say about their food. The same is true for other products, like vitamins, weight loss supplements and the like (hence the lawsuits against the makers of Men’s One-A-Day and Airborne, as well as trainer/TV personality Jillian Michaels, endorser of Calorie Control). So the question for Taco Bell is simple: did it comply with applicable regulations when touting its tacos as having “real beef” in them?

Taco Bell’s response, on the other hand, was fascinating. Taco Bell took out full-page “Thank You For Suing Us” ads in major newspapers across the country denying the allegations in the complaint. That’s not too surprising. But, Taco Bell did more than just offer facetious thanks and deny the allegations.
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During a Hollywood breakup, inevitably the bitter dumpee will publicly air some dirty laundry about the heartless dumper. And by now, most of us are probably bored of the endless parade of allegations ofdalliances with the nannyobsessions with child pornography, andmind-bending racist rants (I mean, those are so overdone, right?). But every once in a while, you get a really interesting, fresh take on the mid-breakup PR takedown. For example, what if the dumpee stronglyinsinuates that the dumper is secretly into cross-dressing? Can that dumper sue the loose-lipped dumpee for defamation? Well, let’s take a look at an example.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is a lovely show that documents the lives of several caring, down-to-earth, and respectful women….oh wait, wrong show. The real Real Housewives of Beverly Hills documents the dramatic lives of six well-to-do women who love their ritzy lifestyles and seem to constantly get into screaming matches with each other about absolutely nothing. (Um. Or so I hear…) One of the show’s stars, Camille Grammer (a.k.a. Kelsey Grammer’s bitter soon-to-be ex-wife), has been the instigator of many of those screaming matches. Yet, evidently not content with stirring things up in only one medium, the erstwhile Mrs. Frasier Crane went for bonus headlines during an appearance last week on theHoward Stern Show.

When Howard Stern asked Camille whether Kelsey starred in the cross-dressing Broadway show La Cage aux Folles because he is gay, Camille quickly replied, “That’s for another reason.” Howard Stern and his sidekick Robin Quivers then pressed Camille about whether Kelsey was secretly into cross-dressing. In response, a laughing Camille not-so-coyly stated, “I didn’t say it. I’m not talking about that.” While Camille did not exactly say that Kelsey likes to play dress up with women’s clothes, she never denied it or indicated that she was joking around. Instead, she strongly implied that cross-dressing was one of Kelsey’s private extracurricular activities. Before going any further, but not before hinting that Kelsey has worn her panties in the past, Camille decided to change the subject for fear she would be “smacked with a lawsuit.”

Kelsey does not seem to be all that rattled by Camille’s antics. But, this being a legal blog and all, what we want to know is: can Kelsey sue his estranged wife for defamation?
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Some of you may remember (how could you forget!) when Lindsay Lohan sued E*Trade for featuring Lindsay the “milkaholic” baby in its commercial that debuted during the Super Bowl. Fortunately for the Lohan clan, and more important, for baseless lawsuits everywhere, the suit seems to have paid off. In September of this year, there were reports that Lindsay and E*Trade settled the case out of court and that the Lohans were “very happy” with the outcome (I’m sure, but I don’t know, they settled for two free online trades).

Emboldened by this success, the Lohans strike again! The latest victim: Glee.

On last week’s episode of Glee, Gwyneth Paltrow guest starred as Holly Holiday, a laid-back substitute teacher who likes to incorporate current events and popular topics into her lesson plans. In an effort to keep her Spanish students entertained, Holly asked her class, in Spanish, about Lindsay Lohan’s multiple stints in rehab: “Lindsay Lohan is totally crazy, right?” and “How many times has Lindsay Lohan been to rehab?”

Not surprisingly, those Lindsay references sparked Lindsay’s protective “momager” to take action. Dina Lohan claims that the Lindsay references were “tasteless” and she is now threatening to sue Glee for defaming her daughter (I bet nobody saw this coming…wink, wink).

Can Glee really be held liable for defaming Lindsay? It’s unlikely.
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Q: I’m the producer of a film based on a memoir. The memoir was written by a relative of a family that has made a fortune producing a very famous product and then got into legal and mafia trouble. We’ve optioned the book but think it’s going to be difficult (if not impossible) to obtain life rights agreements from the other family members who will be portrayed in the film. We can base the film on the information in the book, court documents, and interviews between the author and the family members. So we can stick to the truth but of course it will need to be dramatized. Can you give some guidelines for the screenwriter who is going to adapt this book to minimize our exposure to defamation or libel lawsuits?

A: Generally, when dealing with projects involving mafia trouble, I advise first to obtain good life insurance from a reputable insurance company that covers mob hits made to appear like an accident or suicide. Once the policy is in place, say a few prayers or if you’re not religious find God quickly and then say a few prayers. These small details out of the way, you’re ready to start the game of legal Russian Roulette.
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Q: I’m making a series of humorous short films about the dot com bubble days. One of the characters is named Gill Bates in a not-so-subtle dig at you know who. We’re pretty hard on him in a humorous way. Do I need to worry about defamation or name and likeness issues with this or any other “based on real life” characters we may use?

A: I like where you went with this. It’s pretty impressive that you took one of America’s most beloved nerds and, through a simple switcheroo of letters, made him sound even nerdier with a name like “Gill.” Then you creeped it up with a last name like “Bates.” Which is perfect because I’m pretty sure Bill Gates sits up in his room wearing his mother’s wig arguing with himself about whether he should be allowed to invite Steve Jobs in for supper.

Did you see what I did right there? I not only made a half-hearted attempt at a movie-themed joke, I also demonstrated my lack of fear about telling the world that a public figure dresses up like his mother and converses with himself, knowing it’s probably not true. Is the source of this fearlessness my unbridled confidence that my good looks can get me out of any bind? Most likely. (I’m still very excited about our new profile pictures.) However, I also derive comfort from South Park’s favorite constitutional protection: the First Amendment.
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When I was growing up, about half of my friends — most of whom had no appreciable talent for creative writing — at one point or another wanted to be screenwriters. Well, “wanting to be screenwriters” might be overstating it. I should say that, at one point in high school, each of these people was four hours into a night of hard partying when they had what seemed like the greatest movie idea ever. Unfortunately for my friends, screenwriting actually takes some talent, and these half-baked notions typically resulted in two and a half pages of drivel, long since abandoned in the darkest corners of the hard drive of an HP Pavilion computer from 1999, currently collecting dust in their parents’ garage.

Enter reality television. Suddenly, creating a TV show only takes the 2 a.m. epiphany — no actual writing (or talent or dignity) is necessary. And sure enough, a childhood friend recently called me for advice about a reality show he is pitching. So what happens if the show gains traction and I find myself representing the producer of a successful reality program? A form contestant agreement for the CBS show Survivor (which was recently published by RealityBlurred.com) offers an interesting glimpse into the legal side of reality television. Yes, I said it — a 32 page agreement is actually an interesting read.
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The new Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” opened this weekend to rave reviews and the No. 1 spot at the box office. If history is any guide, we should now prepare ourselves for two things: (1) a string of copycat films (coming soon, “Friendster: We Totally Came Up With This Idea First, Really!” and “MySpace: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?”); and (2) a string of lawsuits.

As studio litigation departments know well, the standard legal claim that follows the release of a successful movie is one for “idea theft” brought by plaintiffs who claim that their idea for the movie was stolen by the filmmakers. But because “Social Network” is based on a true story — and because everyone who believes he invented Facebook has already sued Mark Zuckerberg — any claims are likely to focus on the film’s portrayal of real-life individuals.
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And now, for your reading pleasure, a brief introduction to the law of defamation, presented in verse:

There was a young client named Ives
who came running in yelling “its lies.”
“Libel!” he cried, “and slander to boot!
You’re my lawyer,” he said, “kill him in court!”
I can do it, said I, but
there are things to consider:
did he tell anyone else on email or Twitter?
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The violent storm that was the Shirley Sherrod story, which rolled through the blogosphere and mainstream media outlets the past couple of weeks, has already begun to dissipate. In its aftermath, however, commentators have started to ponder on what the media, political groups like the NAACP and Tea Partiers, the Obama administration, and the public at large can and should take from this — if not “teachable” — certainly revealing moment.

From the Internet’s perspective, the great thing about this story is that, like the BP oil spill, you can blame just about anyone and everyone you like! Obama administration? Cowed to the pressures of the right-wing media and 24-hour news cycle in its decision to demand Sherrod’s resignation before it had all the facts. NAACP? Reactionary denouncement of Sherrod even though it was likely in possession of the full, unedited clip of Sherrod’s speech, which was given at one of its conferences. Like several commentators, though, most of my dismay and outrage is directed at the media and its (mis)handling of the entire affair. Obviously, Fox News and Andrew Breitbart deserve the lion’s share of the blame for their decision to run the edited-beyond-recognition clip. But in this, the Daily Show era of meta-news-about-news reporting, those reporting about the principal players are also culpable for their collective failure to call out Fox and the right-wing blogosphere on their ever-increasing foray into bright — I’m talking neon — yellow journalism.

So to review, we’re angry at the executive branch, we’re angry at the civil rights organizations, we’re angry at the media, and we’re angry about the other media. But in case you hadn’t noticed, this is a law blog, and I am here to tell you: we should be angry at the law too.
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