Emmy-Nominated Doc 'What Haunts Us' Sparks Defamation Lawsuit Over 1979 Yearbook Photo

What Haunts Us Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment

A Florida teacher is suing Starz and filmmakers of What Haunts Us for defamation, claiming the Emmy-nominated documentary falsely ties him to instances of sexual abuse at his alma mater. 

Adam Bonsignori is an alumnus of the Porter-Gaud school in Charleston, South Carolina. The film centers on a teacher's sexual abuse of the students there in the late '70s and '80s. While Bonsignori was a student there while the abuse was occurring, he says he wasn't a victim and didn't know about it until the teacher, Eddie Fischer, was arrested in 1997, according to the complaint.

Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach was a student at the school, but was six grades behind Bonsignori and the two didn't know each other. 

Bonsignori says his 1979 yearbook photo has been distorted and used for promotional materials — in the same way Fischer's was — and it's creating the impression that either he is a sexual abuser or he knew his classmates were being abused and failed to protect them.

"One of the themes of the Film is that people were aware of what was happening but did nothing to stop it," writes attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs in the complaint, which is posted in full below. (The attorney cites The Hollywood Reporter's review of the film to support this argument.) Bonsignori heard his image was being used from his wife, and he's still unsure whether his friends and family fully believe he wasn't involved.

"Even though Bonsignori’s eyes and upper part of his nose are partially obscured in the Image, numerous people have recognized it as him," writes Rufus-Isaacs. "Especially since he himself is a father and a teacher, he is horrified, humiliated, embarrassed and distressed by Defendants’ callous and defamatory use of his likeness to sensationalize the subject matter and market the Film in order to boost their professional standing and/or make money."

One version of the yearbook photo features his upper face scratched out with the tagline "pay attention to who's paying attention to your kids" superimposed on it. A second version shows more of his face scratched out without the tagline. A third is blurred and otherwise distorted to conceal the identity of the person, and Bonsignori says if that had been the only image used he wouldn't have been harmed. The images were used on social media pages, in newspaper ads and on posters, according to the complaint.

Bonsignore's wife sent a Facebook message to producers in May and he claims they promised to stop using the image immediately and said the idea that the couple was "uncomfortable in any way upsets us tremendously." 

When the images weren't removed, Bonsignori's lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to producers and Starz. Defense counsel, according to the complaint, offered to remove the image as a courtesy, but the teacher claims it was still in the film when it was released theatrically and was shown in Starz promotions. 

Bonsignori is suing for defamation, false light and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Starz and the filmmakers have not yet commented on the complaint.