Katie Couric, 'Under the Gun' Director Face $13M Defamation Lawsuit

Under the Gun still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Can silence in a certain context be held up as a defamatory statement?

The Virginia Citizens Defense League is hoping the answer is affirmative in a $13 million lawsuit against Katie Couric, Stephanie Soechtig and Epix over the documentary film Under the Gun.

In the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Couric asks, "If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?"

Under the Gun portrays VCDL members Daniel Hawes and Patricia Webb in about nine seconds of silence in response to Couric's question, but according to the plaintiffs, they actually provided an answer.

"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 complaint filed in Virginia federal court.

Read the full complaint.

The VCDL asserts that Soechtig, the film's director, operated with an "agenda" and that "although the Defendants knew that their intentional edits were misleading and misrepresented Couric’s exchange with the VCDL, they refused to remove the manipulated footage or to present the footage of what had actually taken place."

The VCDL will have to convince a judge that a non-statement is in fact a statement capable of being proven true or false. The plaintiff also will likely have to hurdle past a challenge that the First Amendment gives filmmakers editing leeway — even for the allegedly misleading. (The complaint, among other things, asserts that the defendants revealed actual malice by using "manipulative lighting techniques" to cast shadows on VCDL members' faces.) And even if the VCDL accomplishes this, the group will have to show how their reputations were tarnished.

On the latter point, the lawsuit states, "The fictional exchange is defamatory because it holds the Plaintiffs up as objects of ridicule by falsely representing that, as experts in their respective pro-Second Amendment trades, they had no basis for their opposition to universal background checks."

"It is also defamatory per se as to each of the three Plaintiffs," continues the complaint. "First, the exchange prejudices the Virginia Citizens Defense League in its trade as a pro-Second Amendment advocacy organization. It conveys that the organization is unfit to — and failed to — perform its mission: to defend people’s right to defend themselves. Second, the fictional exchange prejudices Webb in her trade as a licensed firearms dealer by falsely conveying that she lacks knowledge regarding background checks — a requirement for every gun sale at her store. Third, it prejudices Hawes in his profession as an attorney who practices litigation involving firearms and personal defense by conveying that he lacks the legal expertise and oral advocacy skills required to perform his duties."

Back in May, the filmmakers responded to the controversy over how the film was edited.

“There are a wide range of views expressed in the film," Soechtig said in a statement at the time. "My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans' opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way.”

Couric added that she supported Soechtig's statement and said she was "very proud of the film."

In response to the lawsuit, Stefan Friedman, a spokesperson for Soechtig, says, "It’s ironic that people who so passionately defend the Second Amendment want to trample the rights guaranteed to a filmmaker under the First. Stephanie stands by Under the Gun, and will not stop her work on behalf of victims of gun violence."