Former Prosecutor Sues Netflix for Defamation in “When They See Us”

Linda Fairstein was once lauded as a champion of women and victims of sexual assault when she was prosecuting the case against the Central Park Five in 1989 and after she succeeded in getting them convicted. Fairstein was in charge of the sex crimes division of the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time the high-profile case was being investigated and prosecuted, but since all the convictions of the Central Park Five were overturned, the narrative on Fairstein’s career has been similarly upended.

In 2002, Matias Reyes, a man who had already been convicted of murder and a series of rapes, confessed to raping a white woman as she was out jogging in Central Park 13 years earlier. The problem was that Reyes was not one of the five black and Latino men who had been accused and convicted of the crime, and his confession led to the public questioning of the role racism played in how the New York City Police Department and Manhattan district attorney’s office handled the case.

After Reyes confessed, pieces of the investigation came to light, including the fact that the police had coerced the five young men into confessing to a crime they had not committed. The five men, who have become known as the “Central Park Five”, sued the city of New York for falsely imprisoning them for years. The suit settled for $41 million without any admission of guilt from the city.

Upon finishing her career as a prosecutor, Fairstein went on to become a best-selling crime novelist and was even awarded the Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America.

Attica Locke, another Edgar Award winner, publicly urged Mystery Writers of America to revoke Fairstein’s Edgar Award and give the honor to someone else. According to Locke, Fairstein bore almost all the responsibility for getting the Central Park Five wrongfully convicted. In 2018, Mystery Writers of America revoked Fairstein’s Edgar Award, saying it had not been aware of her role in the case.

Locke also co-wrote the Netflix series “When They See Us”, a four-episode miniseries that was directed, co-produced, and co-written by Ava DuVernay. The miniseries was released in May of 2019 and almost immediately the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein started trending on social media.

Fairstein’s publisher, Dutton, dropped her, and Fairstein resigned from the boards of several organizations as a result of the public backlash against her.

Now Fairstein is suing Netflix, DuVernay, and Locke for allegedly defaming her in “When They See Us”. The lawsuit alleges the miniseries inaccurately depicts Fairstein as being both racist and unethical. The miniseries is also allegedly inaccurate in portraying her as having led both the investigation into and the prosecution of the Central Park Five.

Neither DuVernay nor Locke have responded to the filing of the lawsuit, but representatives for Netflix have called it frivolous and without merit.

Even if Fairstein could prove was misrepresented in the miniseries, it’s unlikely that her case has a leg to stand on. Since the miniseries is a dramatization of historical events, rather than a documentary, it is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Additionally, Fairstein’s status as a public figure sets the bar for defamation higher than for private citizens, making it even less likely she’ll succeed in getting the outcome she wants from this case.

Whether you are being accused of harming someone’s reputation or you believe someone else has harmed your reputation by making defamatory statements, it is important to consult an experienced slander and libel law attorney. Our Chicago and DuPage County 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. You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we successfully defended our client by presenting evidence that our client’s numerous YouTube videos concerning a used car dealer were substantially true and constituted protected opinion under the First Amendment. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court.

Our Naperville and Evanston defamation attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area, including in Wilmette and Evanston, 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 victims of cyber-smearing via false rating websites created by competitors to publish defamatory content. Beyond slander and libel law, our 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. We serve clients throughout Illinois and the Chicagoland area.  You can contact us online here or call us on our locally number at 630-333-0333.

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