Defamation On Screen: Biopics and Representing Real People

"Defamation On Screen: Biopics And Representing Real People"
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On Monday, October 28, the Brooklyn Entertainment and Sports Law Society held its annual Film and Television panel titled “Defamation On Screen: Biopics And Representing Real People.” The panel comprised Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, Andrew Miltenberg, and Nicole Haff. The panel was moderated by Professor T. Barton Carter, who specializes in communication law and new communication technologies and has been the author of several media and communications law textbooks.

An Oxford University graduate and President of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, Mr. Rufus-Isaacs is a renowned litigator specializing in media, entertainment, and business disputes. Currently, Mr. Rufus-Isaacs is representing Rachel Williams in a lawsuit derived from her portrayal in the Netflix series “Inventing Anna.”

Mr. Miltenberg is a highly experienced trial lawyer who, for 23 years, has focused on disciplinary matters, on campus due process and is known for his complex business litigation expertise. Recently, he has represented Linda Fairstein concerning her defamation lawsuit against Netflix for her portrayal in “When They See Us.”

Ms. Haff is a highly regarded attorney who specializes in entertainment, media, and business law. As a partner at Romano Law, she is responsible for the firm’s litigation practice. She has represented a wide array of clients such as businesses, officers, directors, founders, and artists in federal disputes and has made successful appeals for the 2nd circuit.

The conversation started with Professor Carter asking the panelists how they entered the field of communication law and, in particular, defamation law in the media and entertainment space. Ms. Haff defined her journey as a long one, starting at a big law firm focusing on business and financial services litigation. However, she was always passionate about intellectual property law and eventually found her way into a firm that focused on such an area.

One of the central themes of this discussion revolved around how the advent of new technology has caused the prevalence of defamation cases to skyrocket. Mr. Miltenberg said that initially, the media could only defame someone via the five channels on television or via the newspaper. Nowadays, with the advent of multiple streaming services and media channels, there are more ways than ever for a person to be defamed.

The central themes of this discussion focused on how the goals of clients differ in defamation cases. For example, Mr. Rufus-Isaacs highlighted the alleged defamation of Lakers Coach Jerry West by HBO in its series “Winning Time.” In this situation, Mr. Rufus-Isaacs noted that, unlike private clients who typically desire monetary damages, Mr. West wanted to have his name and image cleared in the court of public opinion. As a result, Mr. Isaacs pointed to the fact that instead of filing suit, Mr. West published a legal brief in lieu of a lawsuit, which provided compelling affirmations of his character.

Another point referenced throughout the panel was how the disclaimer used by media networks stating that any similarities between the characters and actual people are of mere coincidence is not much of a barrier to defamation cases. Ms. Haff found that such disclaimers are typically not a barrier to defamation litigation, finding that if the media depicted the character in such a manner that the actual person was identifiable, it does not matter if a disclaimer was present.

Overall, the panelists and moderator provided valuable, practical information, such as the steps they take in litigating a defamation case, the resources they use, as well as commentary on statutes, particularly the Anti-Slapp laws located in certain jurisdictions.

We thank all of our panelists for partaking in this panel and look forward to following the legal developments associated with biopics, documentaries, and their impact on the lives of actual people.

Written by: Matthew Weksler
Matthew is a 2024 J.D. Candidate at Brooklyn Law School

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