As the sexual assault trial of Harvey Weinstein gets underway, people are reminded of the impact of the #MeToo movement on our justice system. We are also reminded of another truth that many victims of sexual assault know all too well, waiting to speak out can mean that the guilty party is immune from criminal prosecution because of the short statute of limitations periods on sexual assault in many states. Victims, unable to pursue justice directly, have begun in increasing numbers turning to the centuries-old tool of defamation lawsuits, opening an alternative legal battleground for dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct.
No one exemplifies this growing trend more than the actress, Ashley Judd. In 2017, Ms. Judd raised allegations about a sexual assault she claims to have suffered at the hands of Weinstein some twenty years earlier. However, like many of the claims of sexual misconduct leveled against Weinstein in the months that followed, Ms. Judd’s claims were too old to prosecute. Undeterred, Ms. Judd sued the producer for defamation in 2018 after reading that Mr. Weinstein’s studio, Miramax, had described Ms. Judd as a “nightmare to work with.”
Ms. Judd’s slander suit is hardly the only high profile defamation suit to come out of the #MeToo era. This year alone several highly publicized defamation cases involving President Trump, the Senate candidate Roy Moore and the actor Johnny Depp are expected to go to trial.
In one such case, Summer Zervos, a former contestant of the president’s popular reality TV show “The Apprentice,” filed a defamation lawsuit against President Trump for his comments on the campaign trail that her accusations of unwanted kissing and groping were fabricated. The president has sought to avoid the suit by arguing that he cannot be sued in state court while in office. E. Jean Carroll filed a similar lawsuit against President Trump after he accused her of lying about his raping her to increase sales of her new book.
While the facts of each libel suit differ, many #MeToo plaintiffs are basing their suits on statements by the men they accused calling them liars. For many plaintiffs, suing for defamation provides them the opportunity to air the facts of what happened years ago, even if they are unable to hold the accused criminally liable. On the other hand, men like Mr. Depp are using defamation suits defensively to preserve their reputations against allegations from women, in his case, his ex-wife Amber Heard, who accused him of domestic abuse. In another case, writer Stephen Elliott sued Moira Donegan, the creator of a widely circulated list of men accused of sexual misconduct that included his name. Continue reading ›