Soldier's Widow Sues Fox Over TV Images of Military Families
After seeing her family on NatGeo, Donnice Roberts is asking a Texas judge to bar future military families from having their images used without permission.
Few would ever accuse Fox's cable networks of not being sufficiently obsessed with the threats posed by Islamic fanaticism, but one person is attempting to make the case.
Donnice Roberts is the widow of the late Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Casey Roberts, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service.
On behalf of herself and others, she's suing the Fox Entertainment Group, Fox Cable Networks and the National Geographical Society for publishing the image of herself and her two children in a NatGeo documentary, Inside Afghan ER. And she's demanding an injunction against the film.
In her complaint filed on Thursday in Texas federal court, Roberts says the documentary includes images of a family trip to Disney World and she believes that a photograph was taken from Sgt. Roberts' personal laptop computer after his death and without permission.
The widow says that the images of herself and her family in the documentary were disturbing to her. According to the lawsuit, "This is particularly true given the fanaticism associated with jihadists determined to kill Americans, including American women and children."
The documentary has been distributed around the world by Fox and has won a prize in Asia, according to Roberts, who found out about it when she received a phone call from a military service member in Germany who had seen it on the Armed Forces Network.
She investigated further because at the time she hadn't known there was video footage related to her husband's death in May 2008 on a security mission in Khost, Afghanistan. She contacted the National Geographic Society, which produced the film, and asked for a copy. Roberts says she was told that she would have to sign a release. She refused.
Roberts now says in her lawsuit that she's suffered "mental anguish, shock and sadness" as a result of her allegedly unauthorized appearance.
She also suggests that Fox's cable TV networks are putting lives in danger for profit. "Roberts has fears and concerns that her minor children are depicted as the children of a warrior in the war on our terror, which is fought by fanatic, radical individuals who have shown a propensity and desire to kill Americans, including women and children," says the lawsuit.
Interestingly, the lawsuit doesn't seek financial damages: "Plaintiffs have suffered an irreparable harm and the economic damages available are inadequate to remedy the harm caused."
Instead, Roberts is asking for a big injunction.
Besides a judge's order to enjoin further airing or marketing of Inside Afghan ER, she's also demanding that the defendants be prohibited from using military family members' images, names or likenesses for commercial purposes without their written permission. According to the lawsuit:
"The enforcement and placement of this permanent injunctive relief will honor Sergeant Roberts and is an appropriate equitable remedy for the Defendants' unauthorized conduct. Moreover, this injunctive relief will prevent any other future military family member from a similar situation."
"We do not wish to comment on this pending litigation," a Fox spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The injunction request is likely to trigger a strong First Amendment challenge and possibly even some strange bedfellows.
This isn't, after all, the first time that a court has been asked to balance the right to privacy for the families of military members and the right of free speech for the media. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the First Amendment protects protests near a military service member's funeral. In reaction, Congress passed a law that limited protesters' rights to disrupt military funerals. At the time, the ACLU blasted the new law as a stifling of free speech.
A similar tug-of-war between privacy and speech is about to commence.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @eriqgardner