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Defamation Suits Against the "True-Crime" Series

Netflix and CBS are among the defendants in the wave lawsuits against networks for their true-crime series that have captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers, as well as more than their fair share of Emmy awards.  In short, the defamation suits challenge the "true" part of the true-crime series. And the term, "conspiracy theory" has come up a few times in the suits. Rebecca Keegan, "Inside 'Making a Murderer" Lawsuit and the Hidden Dangers of TV's True-Crime Craze,...Here is a list of the suits, what was alleged, and, in some cases, the outcome:


    1. netflix-defamation-case.jpg The latest suit was filed against Netflix for its "Making a Murderer" series by Andrew Colborn, a police officer in Wisconsin whose face was featured in the show's premiere case that alleged Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery were framed for the 2005 murder of Teresa Hallbach. The suit alleges that the show failed to disclose material information in an attempt to make Officer Colborn appear to be corrupt.  The series has sparked an Internet debate with headlines such as "Colborn Lies." Colborn's suit lists the problems and issues he, his wife, and four children have faced as a result of the show, the resulting publicity, and the internet-fueled efforts to free Dassey and Avery.  
    2. cbs-defamation-case.jpgThe family of JonBenet Ramsey just settled a defamation lawsuit with CBS for its four-hour documentary entitled, "The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey."  The show suggested that the child's 9-year-old brother killed his sister by hitting her with a flashlight and that her parents then covered up for the brother. 
    3. nbc-defamation-case.jpgA suit by Beth Holloway against NBC (and its Oxygen network) has been allowed to proceed in Alabama after a judge ruled that there were sufficient allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The networks aired a show, "The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway," that dealt with the disappearance of then 18-year old Natalee who was on a high-school graduation trip in Aruba.  The sleuths for the show claimed that they had located Natalee's remains. The suit alleges that the bones discovered and touted on the show were not those of Natalee but animal remains.  


L. Lin Wood, the attorney involved in representing both the Ramsey family and Beth Holloway says that the shows are welcome to explore the cases and present them factually, but that their conclusions reached are the problem.  Those conclusions have resulted in problems for those who are identified as the "real" culprits, though they may not be and depictions of incompetence and/or corruption on the parts of law enforcement officials.  Because of these effects, the plaintiffs are suing for defamation, based on untrue statements that depict them in a way that causes harm to their reputations. The victims' families' suits are based on the resulting emotional impact of theories that result in similar harm to those who are falsely accused by the shows.  


The lawyers for the defendants have already given some indication of the defenses that they might use.  One possible  defense is that "true crime" does not mean "true" in the sense of "truth."  That is, the shows are put together for entertainment purposes and are not "true" documentaries. Their argument is that the public does not view the shows as "real."  In other words, the shows are done to spawn discussions based on material presented in the show, but not on actual and full depiction of the facts.  In other words, the shows are entertaining speculation.  Whether that argument will fly as a defense remains to be seen. 




  • What disclaimers, disclosures, or show names could be used to counter defamation allegations?
  • What damages would those claiming defamation have as a result of the alleged false statements in the shows?


Dr. Jennings has more examples of defamation in her MindTap course.  There's even an example that students can easily relate to: possible defamation issues with letters of recommendation. You'll find this in section 9-2:







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