Netflix Faces a Very Curious Lawsuit Over 'When They See Us'

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

When They See Us, Ava Duvernay's critically praised docuseries about five African-American men wrongfully incarcerated for a 1989 sexual assault, has provoked a rather interesting defamation suit. The complaint, filed on Monday in Illinois federal court against Netflix and Duvernay, comes not from any of the individuals tied to the infamous "Central Park jogger case" — not the accused nor prosecutors and investigators — but rather from a company not mentioned whatsoever during the course of the four-part series.

John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., is the plaintiff in the case.

Reid, as an individual, is a former police officer turned consultant who pioneered an interrogation technique that he's been teaching since 1974. According to the complaint, Reid's clients include the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. military and police departments around the country. 

His problem with When They See Us?

In the final episode of the series, a discussion ensues between Manhattan assistant D.A. Nancy Ryan and a New York City detective who was involved in eliciting the confessions of the Central Park Five. During this conversation, Ryan's partner says, "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. That's truth to you."

The 41-page complaint (read here) strenuously objects to the notion that the Reid Technique has been universally rejected. What's more, the plaintiff doesn't like the reference to the Reid Technique in the Central Park Jogger case.

"The conduct described is not the Reid Technique," states the lawsuit, adding a bit later, "The program falsely represents that squeezing and coercing statements from juvenile subjects after long hours of questioning without food, bathroom breaks or parental supervision is synonymous with the Reid Technique."

Even accepting this as true, however, does the documentary make any statement about John E. Reid and Associates? Does it even make any statements about Reid? Or is it just his technique that Netflix and DuVernay are alleged to have disparaged?

Such questions may become important as the lawsuit proceeds. If viewers understand the statements to be of and concerning Reid's company, the plaintiff may stand a chance. The complaint nods to the fact that the Reid Technique is a trademark, which means it is associated with John E. Reid, though that might not quite be enough. Time will tell.

Netflix had no comment about the suit. However, the complaint states that the company rejected a demand for edits and a retraction.