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A judge in Massachussetts dismissed on Tuesday a defamation lawsuit against Barbara Walters. The claim came from a woman who said she had a relationship with Walters’ daughter 20 years ago, and as a result, was kicked out of school at Walters’ behest and had her life ruined.
In 2008, the The View star published her autobiography, Audition: A Memoir. In one passage, she talks about her adopted daughter’s life in the 1980s. In the passage, Walters described one of her daughter’s friends, “whom the school kicked out midterm for bad behavior” and talks how she had to contend with a situation where both girls were “found in the nearby town, high on God-knows-what.”
Last May, Nancy Shay stepped up to say that was her. Only she says Walters lied about what happened.
In Shay’s version, the two girls were engaged in a lesbian relationship that was sanctioned by students and faculty at the school. Walters wanted to end the relationship, so according to the complaint, “Barbara Walters used her influence and power to have Plaintiff Nancy Shay expelled from the Wykeham Rise School, when the Plaintiff was about 16 years of age.”
After Shay was expelled, she says that Walters bullied her into saying silent, allegedly telling Shay, “You’ll ruin your name. Never mind, you’ll ruin my name and my daughter’s name.”
Walters moved to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that the pleadings weren’t enough to carry claims of defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference. She argued the First Amendment protected her book, and that two sentences in a 579-page book about something that happened 20 years ago couldn’t be harmful.
In response, Shay tried to introduce new evidence, including a statement by her therapist that revealed Shay was in recovery for addiction and was undergoing regular counseling sessions for traumatic life events, including the “great torment” caused by the book.
But defamation is an injury within a community, and U.S. District Judge George O’Toole says the plaintiff simply can’t show harm because, even if the allegations are true, “the small number of people who would have been able to recognize the book’s oblique references to the plaintiff would also likely have been aware of the circumstances of her expulsion that were the subject matter of the accused statements.”
The judge also dismisses the emotional distress claim as derivative of the defamation one and tosses the tortious interference claim because if Shay wanted to object to the way Walters allegedly interfered in her schooling, Shay needed to bring a lawsuit two decades earlier.
Walters was represented by Orin Snyder at Gibson Dunn.
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