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Netflix won’t have to face a defamation suit brought by a retired police officer who said the docuseries Making a Murderer defamed him by accusing him of planting evidence.
In a ruling granting summary judgment in favor of Netflix on Friday, Judge Brett Ludwig found that the First Amendment “does not guarantee a public figure” like plaintiff Andrew Colborn the “role of protagonist in popular discourse” and “protects the media’s ability to cast him in a much less flattering light.”
Making a Murderer, released in December 2015, tells the story of Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA evidence exonerated him. He returned home, only to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for another murder. The 10-part docuseries explores Avery’s defense that he was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office, including Colborn. It contended that law enforcement may have planted evidence because they were embarrassed by Avery’s wrongful conviction and feared potentially massive monetary damages he stood to recover in civil litigation.
Colborn in 2018 sued Netflix and producers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, along with their independent production company Chrome Media, for defamation after the series became a hit that’s attributed with sparking the true-crime content boom. He alleged that the series defamed him by abridging in-court testimony, adopting allegations that Avery was framed as fact and portraying Avery in a more flattering light than he deserved.
To prove defamation, there must be proof that the defendant published a false statement. For public officials like Colborn, there must also be clear and convicting evidence that the defamatory statements were published with “actual malice,” or the knowledge that they were false, or with “reckless disregard” to the truth.
Judge Ludwig concluded the “legal standards wipe out the bulk of Colborn’s case,” finding the suit “adopts an overbroad definition of defamation.”
“Most of his gripes read more like media criticism better suited to the op-ed section; they are not actionable statements that could even potentially be defamatory under Wisconsin law,” he wrote.
On summary judgement, Colborn identified 52 instances of alleged defamation. He pointed to the series’ use of music and graphics that allegedly implied improper conduct and the alteration of reaction shots from Avery’s homicide trial, among other things.
The judge sided with Netflix that none of the allegations can support a legal claim. Music and graphics, for example, are not actionable statements that can subject a publisher to “liability based solely on an unnerving musical motif,” he found.
Ludwig raised the same issues with Colborn’s other alleged instances of defamation, which he said don’t concern him.
“He objects to Steven Avery’s voiceover: ‘They had the evidence back [in 1985] that I didn’t do it. But nobody said anything,'” he wrote. “Though Colborn identifies the voiceover as defamatory, he never explains how it implicates him or why it is false.”
Colborn also argued that the series altered his testimony by condensing footage of the trial, altering his words to make him appear more contemptible.
Ludwig, however, found that “some alteration is necessary” since no documentary is “true in the strictest sense of the word” because they all “abbreviate, edit, and emphasize” certain facts. If every altered quotation met the falsity requirement to prove actual malice, he said journalism would “require a radical change” inconsistent with First Amendment principles. Minor inaccuracies are forgiven as long as the substance of the statement remains unchanged, he concluded.
Netflix didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
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