Katie Couric Wins Appeal Against Gun Rights Group Arguing Documentary Was Defamatory

According to the Fourth Circuit, even if the film was deceptively edited, nine seconds of silence in response to a question about background checks doesn't mean pro-gun individuals are ignorant.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Katie Couric, Stephanie Soechtig, Epix and others associated with the documentary Under the Gun have successfully fended off an attempt to revive a lawsuit contending that the film tarnished the reputation of a gun rights group and several of its members.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League brought the legal claim and asserted $13 million in damages after Under the Gun premiered at the Sundance Film Festival with a controversial scene. Couric asks members of the group, "If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?"

What followed was nine seconds of silence, which the plaintiffs alleged amounted to "manipulated footage falsely inform[ing] viewers that the VCDL members had been stumped and had no basis for their position on background checks."

On Friday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms a decision rejecting the lawsuit.

"To be sure, the film gives the impression that Couric’s final question stumped the panelists," writes circuit judge Diana Gribbon Motz. "But at worst, the plain, ordinary meaning of this edit conveys that these particular members of the VCDL, after answering a series of related questions, did not have a ready-made answer to a nuanced policy question. Even with the benefit of every inference, the edited footage is not reasonably capable of suggesting that the VCDL and its members are, as they contend on appeal, 'ignorant and incompetent on the subject to which they have dedicated their organizational mission.'”

The appeals court also dispenses with the claim that the film was defamatory per se to Daniel Hawes, an attorney and member of the VCDL.

He argued that the edited footage was reasonably capable of being understood as suggesting a lack of competency in his profession, including oral advocacy skills.

Motz responds that "the questions posed to Hawes had nothing to do with his legal practice or expertise" and to find otherwise would "extend mere silence into professional ineptitude."

The appeals court also doesn't think much of the claim from Patricia Webb that the film suggested she was unfit to own a gun store.

Motz writes that "no part of Webb's job as a gun store owner requires her to have nuanced views on gun policy. Had the film suggested that Webb did not know, for instance, whether a gun store owner must perform a background check, this might be a different case. But as the district court explained, '[n]ot 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.'"

Finally, the Fourth Circuit rejects the contention there is any defamatory implication that VCDL is unfit as a pro-Second Amendment advocacy organization.

The opinion (read here) states, "At most, the film suggests that a handful of VCDL members, none of whom are identified as leaders within the organization, could not immediately answer a difficult gun policy question."