Lawyer: Public figures have high bar to clear in defamation suits

By Jamie Kelly | Jun 21, 2016

LOS ANGELES – The recent dismissal of a suit a writer filed against the producers of the movie "American Hustle" shows how difficult it can be for a public figure to show defamation.

Earlier this month, a California appeals court judge dismissed the suit that writer Paul Brodeur brought against the makers of "American Hustle," a 2013 comedy loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation, which took place in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In the movie, a character played by Jennifer Lawrence claimed that Brodeur wrote an article that said microwaves destroyed the nutritional value of food.

Brodeur sued, claiming that the scene caused his reputation harm by misrepresenting what he had believed and written at the time.

In her opinion for the 3-0 decision, Judge Elizabeth Grimes noted that the audience is unlikely to take Lawrence’s character seriously, based on her actions throughout the movie.

Neville Johnson, an attorney with Johnson and Johnson LLP, said that established case law means that public figures have to meet a higher standard when claiming slander, libel or defamation.

New York Times v. Sullivan is the U.S. Supreme Court case that established that in matters involving public figures to (be) liable for defamation, one need show the writer or author acted below the standard of care for writers and journalists,” Johnson told the Northern California Record. “In other words, it's more than mere negligence. They were reckless in what they wrote or that they intentionally wrote something that was false or published something that was false.”

In Grimes’ opinion, she wrote that Brodeur hadn’t offered any admissible evidence about what he believed regarding microwaves in the late 1970s; and that, because the matter was one of public interest and that Brodeur is a public figure, the suit would infringe on the producers’ First Amendment rights. Also, given that Lawrence’s character is not meant to be taken seriously, audiences wouldn’t take her assertion that she’d read an article by Brodeur that claimed microwaves took the nutrition out of food as a literal fact.

That meant Brodeur was unlikely to succeed, and because the case involved a matter of public interest, the court ordered the suit dismissed.

“The court is basically saying 'Look, it's not really defamatory, whatever was said,'” Johnson said. “I mean, they parse it down to its elements and they just say no reasonable person was going to conclude it was defamatory.”

The case falls in line with many others that have held that creators have wide First Amendment protections when it comes to defamation. That makes such suits difficult to win, Johnson said.

“It's tough,” he said. “It really has to be fairly egregious for it to happen. The First Amendment is very broad. In the case of invasion of privacy, it would have to be outrageous to a reasonable person. In the defamation context, it'd better be defamatory, a; and b, it ought to be of significance, as well.”

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