Converged communicators who have taken MMC3200 (Law and Ethics in Communication) have learned by now about libel and slander, the two heads that make up the monster of defamation. Because freedom of speech and freedom of the press are prized by American society – they’re protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution – attempts to claim damages based on defamation have a fairly high bar to clear. Some defamation suits succeed, particularly when the plaintiff is a private figure or when the communicator acted with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth (actual malice). Others, though, are dead in the water. The following baseball-related defamation lawsuit has about as much chance of succeeding in court as the Chicago Cubs do in this year’s playoffs.
Earlier this year, a New York Yankees fan was spotted sleeping in the stands by ESPN cameras during a nationally televised baseball game against the Boston Red Sox. This somewhat embarrassing incident was picked up by the cameras and announcers, and attracted some attention on YouTube and social media. Now, as reported by Mike Oz of Yahoo! Sports, the fan has struck back, launching a $10 million defamation suit against ESPN, Major League Baseball, the Yankees, and the announcers individually. Excerpts from the lawsuit are available online, illustrating dubious reasoning and worse copy editing.
Why does this case stand no chance of success? Let us count the reasons. The most obvious is that the defendants (ESPN, the announcers, the Yankees, etc.) never even made the statements alleged by the lawsuits. Those statements appeared on Internet message boards, for which the companies are not responsible. Similarly, a person who purchases a ticket at Yankee Stadium is in full view of tens of thousands of people in the crowd and cannot claim a reasonable expectation of privacy. The fan would also have a difficult time proving in court that being captured sleeping in the stands caused actual harm to his reputation.
For those interested in a legal viewpoint of why this defamation lawsuit appears doomed from the start, check out this report from A.J. Perez of the Newark Star-Ledger.