The video of Jason Spencer walking backward with his pants down while screaming “America!” was widely viewed and mocked after it aired on Sacha Baron Cohen’s show, “Who Is America?” While it’s certainly embarrassing for Spencer, who later resigned his position as a Georgia state lawmaker, is it worthy of a lawsuit?
Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to getting sued by people who appear on screen with him. His movies and TV shows tend to poke fun at people and put them in a less-than-flattering light, so it’s never a surprise when they become upset after seeing themselves on screen. The latest round of lawsuits looks like it might come from several politicians who appeared on Cohen’s show, “Who Is America?” although it’s unclear exactly what their claims will be. Some of them have already made public comments saying they’ll pursue all legal remedies, but no lawsuits have yet been filed.
There are a few problems with these people trying to sue Cohen and/or the show’s producers. The first is the high probability that they all signed release agreements. While one upset politician has admitted to having signed a release, another said he doesn’t remember, but that it’s likely that he did.
If Cohen and his team can produce those releases, they shouldn’t have much trouble getting the lawsuits dismissed.
Even without the lawsuits, what claims could they list on a lawsuit? That they embarrassed themselves on camera? While the fact that they were misled into saying and doing certain things that they (allegedly) would never do otherwise, the fact remains that they are the ones who said and did them. A defamation lawsuit requires another person to have knowingly made a false statement with the intention of inflicting some sort of financial and/or emotional harm, but Cohen did not make any of the defamatory statements. Since a person cannot legally defame themselves under the law, these politicians have no claim against Cohen.
Even if Cohen had made any negative statements about them, they’d have a hard time proving defamation, since they’re all politicians. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was specifically written with the idea of protecting the public by allowing for the freedom of speech, especially about public figures and events. Since there is particular value in allowing for free speech about public figures, they have a higher burden of proof to bear when trying to make a case for defamation.
Not to mention the nature of Cohen’s show. Not only was he poking fun at public figures, but he was also making light of national and international events and relations, all of which is protected under the First Amendment.
Finally, there are the anti-SLAPP laws. “SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” Essentially, it means someone filed a lawsuit with the sole intention of preventing the defendant from participating in a certain activity. In Cohen’s case, lawsuits filed against him by people who appeared on his show could be perceived as efforts to silence Cohen as an actor and an artist – to prevent him from talking about politicians and national events that affect us all.
Anti-SLAPP laws exist in 28 states (including California) and Cohen and his team have successfully had other lawsuits against them dismissed by citing anti-SLAPP laws. Should these politicians attempt to sue him for the things he had them do on his show, their lawsuits will likely meet similar fates.
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