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In court papers lodged Tuesday, Katie Couric contends that a gun rights group has read too much into pregnant silence in Under the Gun. She’s now moved for dismissal of a $13 million lawsuit with the argument that eight seconds from the 120-minute documentary are incapable of defamatory meaning.
In September, the Virginia Citizens Defense League brought the lawsuit against Couric, Under the Gun director Stephanie Soechtig, Epix and others associated with the documentary.
The controversial scene shows Couric asking VCDL members, “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?”
The plaintiffs are shown in silence in response to the question. In reality, one of the interviewees responded that anyone who is not in jail should be able to buy guns.
Since defamation lawsuits measure the truth or falsity of statements, along with harm to one’s reputation, the question for a Virginia federal judge will be whether a depicted nonresponse is sufficient to carry claims to trial. In the lawsuit, VCDL members assert they have been defamed by implication.
“The manipulated footage falsely informed viewers that the VCDL members had been stumped and had no basis for their position on background checks,” states the lawsuit.
“No reasonable viewer could interpret the film that way, because just before the exchange in question, the film explicitly depicted them explaining why they oppose background checks,” responds a motion to dismiss filed Tuesday by Couric and Atlas Films. “Plaintiffs further assert that the film implies they are unfit to engage in business activities such as selling guns. Those alleged implications are equally strained. At worst, the film might be construed to imply that some members of the interview group had trouble coming up with an answer to the much narrower question about how, if there are no background checks, felons and terrorists can be prevented from buying guns. Defendants have never disputed that editorial choice may fairly be subject to criticism and debate, and indeed it has been. But whatever one thinks about the propriety of the edit, it simply does not rise to the level of defamation.”
Couric’s attorneys argue that opposing perspectives about highly charged political controversies are common, that those debates are better reserved for the court of public opinion rather than courts of law, and that judges need to exercise their “gatekeeping function” to distinguish offending speech from false speech. Only false statements accusing plaintiffs of conduct that society regards as “odious” or “contemptible” rise to defamation under Virginia law, they add.
“Displaying hesitation in the face of one of Couric’s questions in a multi-part interview is simply not that type of conduct,” continues the court brief. “In fact, other jurisdictions have rejected similar efforts to bring defamation suits based on allegedly false implications about a plaintiff’s political conduct or point of view.”
Atlas Films is being represented by attorneys at Levine Sullivan. Couric is being represented by attorneys at Williams & Connolly.
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