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Clark v. E! Entm't TV, LLC - 60 F. Supp. 3d 838 (M.D. Tenn. 2014)

Rule:

It is possible that a statement, while not defamatory, can place a plaintiff in a false light.

Facts:

Plaintiff Clark was a top 10 finalist in the second season of defendant Fox Broadcasting's American Idol talent show when TheSmokingGun.com website reported that he had previously been arrested in Kansas. As a result of that report, Plaintiff was disqualified from further competition on March 31, 2003, purportedly because he had failed to disclose or reveal information about the arrest, which had occurred on October 12, 2002. On the day of the disqualification, Fox issued a statement to TheSmokingGun.com which stated that Clark had been removed from the show. Clark publicly proclaimed that Ms. Abdul had been his mentor on the show, that the two had become romantically involved, and that he had an affair with Ms. Abdul while still a contestant on American Idol. Ms. Abdul has publicly denied the charges.

Many of the claims surrounding Clark’s disqualification from American Idol, the imbroglio surrounding his claim of an alleged affair with Ms. Abdul, and Fox's handling of the matter were contained in the Program, which first aired as early as August 2005. The original program was updated and rebroadcast on January 27, 2012, and that republication serves as the basis for Clark’s present claims. He sued defendants E! and Fox under Tennessee common law for defamation (Count I) and false light invasion of privacy (Count II). The United States District Court entered a final judgment dismissing plaintiff Clark's amended complaint because the claims were time-barred. Now, plaintiff Clark has filed a motion to vacate that order and judgment. 

Issue:

  1. Was the Program capable of a defamatory meaning?
  2. Did Fox place Clark in a false light?
  3. Did E! place Clark in a false light?

Answer:

1. No. 2. No. 3. Yes.

Conclusion:

The District Court granted plaintiff Clark's motion to vacate its earlier judgment granting both defendants' motion to dismiss. The Court then granted defendant Fox's Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim and denied in part defendant E!'s Motion to Dismiss.

The Court concluded that the Program is not capable of a defamatory meaning and, therefore, both Fox and E! are entitled to judgment on Clark’s defamation claim.

In cases involving television broadcasts with a stream of audio and visual components interacting with each other, the plaintiff's burden of identifying allegedly defamatory words with absolute precision and exactitude is much more complicated and poses an especially difficult problem. Clark argued that the Program is capable of a defamatory meaning because the assertion by Abdul that he is a liar combined with E!'s statement that Abdul's "proved time and again that she's tough enough to stay on top" anyway, implied that she overcame Clark’s lies to recover her career and stay on top. Even under the republication doctrine which allow for an original defamer to be held liable for reasonably foreseeable re-broadcasts, Clark does not adequately explain how an original defamer can be liable for a rebroadcast which alters the original statement and it is that altered statement that is said to be defamatory.

The Tennessee Supreme Court in West recognized false light invasion of privacy as a tort distinct from defamation. Therefore, it is possible that a statement, while not defamatory, can place a plaintiff in a false light. With regard to both Fox and E!, Clark argued that "[t]he false light that Defendant has painted of Clark is that he is a liar who nearly destroyed Paula Abdul's career with his 'lies,' and that he lied in order to get ahead by selling more CDs.

Clark’s claims against Fox is attenuated, and the Court concluded that he failed to state a false light invasion of privacy claim as to Fox. The entire Program at issue is E!'s take on Ms. Abdul career and its recounting of the alleged relationship between Clark and her. E! may have paraphrased statements made by Fox, but it was E! that produced, narrated, edited, and provided the audio and visual effects for the Program. While an original speaker may be liable for republication that is "reasonably foreseeable" or its "natural and probable consequence," the Program is an E! broadcast (or publication) that Fox is not alleged to have had a hand in creating or producing. Dismissal of the false light claim as to Fox is therefore warranted. As Fox noted, to hold otherwise would subject a speaker to perpetual liability for republications by totally unrelated strangers that alter the original statements to convey a potentially defamatory message.

The Court did not, however, dismiss the false light invasion of privacy claim as to E!. This is so even though E! may have accurately reported that Clark made a claim which Ms. Abdul characterized as a lie. The falsehood involved in a false light action may consist in dissemination of matters which, while technically true, give an objectionably false impression where the communicator fails to modify the basic statement with amplifying facts which modify the statement to create a less objectionable impression corresponding to full reality. "Full reality" is not necessarily clear from the Program itself. Obviously, because the Program is a biography of Ms. Abdul, much is heard from her. However, and even though Plaintiff's allegations were an important aspect of the show, nothing is heard from Plaintiff — his picture appears on several occasions, but there is no interview with him or a voiceover from him.

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