Defamation at the movies: American Hustle, microwaves, and a libel suit

Converged communicators currently taking MMC3200 (Law and Ethics in Communication) have probably heard a lot about defamation. It’s a two-headed monster, with its twin parts of libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation). And, because of the First Amendment, it’s not generally easy to prove defamation in court. Such a case has to prove many things, including the falsehood of the statement and the harm resulting from the message. But defamation cases do still exist, sometimes popping up where they’re not expected. The producers of the Oscar-nominated film American Hustle found that out the hard way.

As TIME reports (http://time.com/3550964/american-hustle-jennifer-lawrence-paul-brodeur/), Columbia Pictures has been slapped with a major defamation lawsuit. A writer during the time in which the movie was set (around 1980) was noted for his opposition to microwaves in real life. The movie, however, includes a line from a character implying that he made a dubious claim about microwaves and nutrition. He asserts that this statement defamed him, and he is seeking serious damages from the producers.

Does this case have a chance to succeed? Although this converged communicator doesn’t claim to be qualified to offer legal advice (full disclaimer), it doesn’t appear likely. First, the movie acknowledges that it took liberties with the story – in other words, it is basically a work of fiction. The writer would have to prove that the reference to him (he is only mentioned in passing and plays no part in the film) caused damage to his reputation, which seems doubtful. And, as a writer who engaged in vocal activism on an issue, he would likely be deemed a public figure – meaning that he would need to show actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth) to succeed in a defamation lawsuit. The odds of clearing all those hurdles won’t be likely. But the case shows how the complexities of defamation law can pop up even in unexpected circumstances.

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