Movie Star Loses Defamation Lawsuit on First Amendment Grounds — Downers Grove and Burr Ridge Libel Lawyer

As important as their reputation is to their career, public figures (by the nature of their jobs, which puts them in the spotlight) have a hard time controlling that reputation. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects most forms of freedom of speech, especially those regarding public figures. The idea is that free and unprohibited discussion of public figures makes for a more informed public, which can only be good for the public.

This includes creative renderings of historical events and people. Writers and artists often choose to write about things that actually happened decades, or even centuries ago, either because those events are interesting in and of themselves, and/or to make some sort of commentary on modern society.

Ryan Murphy chose to make a limited series about the making of the movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” which starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The series, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was Murphy’s way of discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, two factors that continue to affect the movie and TV industry (among others) to this day, more than fifty years later.

The problem, according to a recent lawsuit, was the fact that, in addition to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the show necessarily had to write about other people who surrounded and interacted with those two stars at the time the film was made, including Olivia de Hallivand, now 101 years old. De Hallivand objected to the way she was portrayed in the limited series and says they never obtained her permission to use her name or likeness for the show.

Specifically, de Hallivand objected to the way she was portrayed as an immoral gossip of low integrity who spread nasty rumors about other actresses in order to boost her own chances of winning an Academy Award (the actress has two Oscar wins under her belt, as well as numerous other awards and accolades). She particularly objected to a line in which Catherine Zeta-Jones, while portraying de Hallivand, calls Joan Fontaine her “bitch sister.” In fact, says de Hallivand, she actually called Fontaine a “dragon lady.”

While no one likes having someone else put words in their mouth, the panel of the appellate court hearing the case determined that de Hallivand was being too picky about word choice. According to the court, as far as meaning is concerned, there is no significant difference between “bitch” and “dragon lady.”

While one might argue that the word “bitch” is often considered a swear word and “uncouth” (and therefore unfit language for a Hollywood starlet to use) the panel has a point that, as far as meaning is concerned, “dragon lady” is not much significantly better – certainly not enough to justify filing a lawsuit.

Moreover, the court determined that, overall, de Hallivand was portrayed in a positive light in the limited series. The show made her out to be glamorous, witty, smart, and ahead of her time concerning issues such as gender equality.

While the trial court sided with de Hallivand and allowed the defamation lawsuit to proceed, the appellate court reversed that decision and dismissed the lawsuit. Additionally, the court ruled that de Hallivand will have to compensate FX for the legal fees it spent in defending itself against her lawsuit.

Unfortunately, such lawsuits are often a hazard of the creative industries, especially when portraying real people. But if the lawsuit had been allowed to continue, it would have set a dangerous precedent that would have required all creators to obtain permission from who knows how many people before making any creative interpretations of historical events. The result would no doubt be that the rest of the world would lose out on countless creative works.

Our Park Ridge IL libel and slander lawyers concentrate in this area of the law. We have defended or prosecuted a number of defamation and libel cases, including cases representing a consumer sued by a large luxury used car dealer in federal court for hundreds of negative internet reviews and videos which resulted in substantial media coverage of the suit; one of Loyola University’s largest contributors when the head basketball coach sued him for libel after he was fired; and a lawyer who was falsely accused of committing fraud with the false allegation published to the Dean of the University of Illinois School of Law, where the lawyer attended law school and the President of the University of Illinois. One of our partners also participated in representing a high profile athlete against a well-known radio shock jock.

Our Chicago defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. Our Chicago Cybersquatting attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Evanston and Elmhurst who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating sites and pretend consumer rating sites that are simply forums to falsely bash or business clients. We have also represented and defended consumers First Amendment and free speech rights to criticize businesses who are guilty of consumer fraud and false advertising.

Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation. Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over thirty years of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business lawsuits involving injunctions, and TROS, defamation, libel, and covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud or defamatory attacks on their business and reputations.

Lubin Austermuehle’s DuPage County defamation and slander lawyers near Lisle and RidgeRdige have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Oak Brook, near Downers Grove and Willowbrook, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.

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