Katie Couric Beats Defamation Lawsuit Over Gun Documentary

A judge concludes that a scene where gun rights advocates were shown in silence to a question was neither false nor carried any harmful implication.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'Under the Gun'

A Virginia judge has just shot down a $13 million lawsuit against Katie Couric, Stephanie Soechtig, Epix and others associated with the documentary Under the Gun.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, provoked controversy because of one scene in particular. In it, Couric asks gun rights advocates, "If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?"

Under the Gun shows those being interviewed in nine seconds of silence.

In response, the Virginia Citizens Defense League attempted to make the case that this pregnant pause was defamatory. In a complaint filed in federal court, the group and its members alleged that the "manipulated footage falsely informed viewers that the VCDL members had been stumped and had no basis for their position on background checks.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court judge John Gibney, Jr. shredded the complaint and granted a motion to dismiss.

"The plaintiffs' defamation claims fail because the interview scene is not false," Gibney writes. "Under the Gun portrays members of the VCDL not answering the question posed by Couric. In reality, members of the VCDL did not answer the question posed by Couric. They talked about background checks and gun laws generally, but did not answer the question of how to prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing guns without background checks. The editing simply dramatizes the sophistry of the VCDL members."

The judge isn't done.

Gibney analyzes the four alleged defamatory meanings supposedly implied by the film.

"The first two alleged defamatory implications do not arise from the film," he concludes. "The film does not suggest that they do not have a basis to oppose background checks or are ignorant about gun regulations and rights. Rather, the film makes a different point about the effect of existing regulations on how to keep guns out of the wrong hands."

As for the alleged implication that VCDL members like Daniel Hawes and Patricia Webb were stumped by Couric's question, the judge responds, "At worst, this shows artistically that they either cannot or will not answer the question. Their verbal responses during the interview showed the same thing. Either way, not having an answer to a question on a difficult and complex issue is not defamatory. It does not lower these plaintiffs in the estimation of the community to the extent and with the sting required."

Finally, there was the alleged implication that VCDL members are ignorant or unfit in their trades.

"Not having an answer to a specific question about effective alternatives to background checks does not imply anything about fitness to own a gun store and to sell guns," responds the judge. "Webb argues that the footage falsely conveys that 'she lacks knowledge regarding integral aspects of her business,' specifically, knowledge about 'background checks and the rights of individuals to purchase firearms.' This argument fails because it seeks to introduce new matter, which innuendo in the defamation context cannot do. Couric did not ask 'Under the current law, can felons purchase firearms?' Falsely stating that Webb did not have an answer to that question would certainly imply unfitness in her trade. This, however, was not Couric's question."

Here's the full opinion.

Atlas Films was represented by attorneys at Levine Sullivan. Couric was represented by attorneys at Williams & Connolly.