Judge Universally Rejects Lawsuit Over 'When They See Us' Dialogue

When They See Us-court-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix and Ava DuVernay have defeated a defamation lawsuit over the award-winning limited series When They See Us, which centers on the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five. 

John E. Reid is an ex-cop turned consultant who has pioneered an investigation style called the Reid Technique that he says he's taught to more than 20,000 people. According to his complaint, the FBI, DEA and police departments across the country use his technique — which he claims was disparaged in the limited series. 

The dispute centers on a conversation in the final episode between prosecutors and an NYPD detective who was involved in getting the Central Park Five to confess. The line of dialogue at issue reads as: "You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid Technique has been universally rejected."

Reid maintains such conduct is not part of his technique and the series is defamatory. 

U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah on Monday dismissed the complaint, finding that not only is the series protected by the First Amendment, but also that DuVernay doesn't have the requisite contact with the state of Illinois for him to establish personal jurisdiction. 

"To ensure that public debate does not suffer for lack of 'imaginative expression' and 'rhetorical hyperbole,' the First Amendment protects from defamation liability any statement that 'cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts,'" writes Shah. "When the prosecutor tells Sheehan that the Reid Technique has been 'universally rejected,' he is using the kind of loose, hyperbolic rhetoric that is a protected part of the nation’s discourse. That’s true whether one looks closely at the words themselves or more broadly at the context in which they are delivered. ... 'Universally' is hyperbolic and the prosecutor cannot be taken literally to assert that all intelligent life in the known universe has rejected the technique — which means his statement is an imprecise, overwrought exclamation."

Further, Shah finds that the "statement was also made by a fictionalized character, during a fictionalized conversation" and When They See Us "sells itself as fact-based but cannot be mistaken for original footage."

In evaluating whether it is implied that the techniques described are purported to be The Reid Technique, Shah notes that, in response to the prosecutor's dialogue above, the investigator says: "I don’t know what the fucking Reid Technique is. Okay? I know what I was taught. I know what I was asked to do and I did it." The judge finds that while the series "refers to the Reid Technique and links it to unreliable confessions, it does not reasonably and in context paint the technique with the defamatory brush."

Shah also found the First Amendment protections defeat Reid's remaining claims for false light, unjust enrichment, commercial disparagement and violations of the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act. (Read the full decision below.) He denied leave to amend.

While this is a decisive victory for Netflix and DuVernay, their fight over When They See Us isn't quite over. Former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein last week filed her own lawsuit over her portrayal in the series.