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Appellate court upholds Eastwood libel verdict

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Appellate court upholds Eastwood libel verdict 10/06/97 CALIFORNIA--"Did defendant falsely represent that plaintiff had given it an interview? Or did…

Appellate court upholds Eastwood libel verdict

10/06/97

CALIFORNIA–“Did defendant falsely represent that plaintiff had given it an interview? Or did it avoid learning that the purported interview was a fabrication? And was the jury right in finding ‘actual malice’?

“Enquiring judges want to know.”

So began the opinion of a federal appellate court in Pasadena, Calif., which decided in August that the National Enquirer had invaded Clint Eastwood’s privacy and misappropriated his name and image.

Eastwood sued the Enquirer in a federal district court in Los Angeles, Calif., after the paper ran an interview with him that it claimed was “exclusive” and implied that the actor had spoken directly to Don Gentile, an assistant editor whose byline appeared on the interview. Most of the material in the Enquirer originally appeared in an interview the actor allegedly gave to British freelance journalist Cameron Docherty, previously published in the British tabloid Today.

In his suit, Eastwood alleged that the Enquirer published the interview knowing that he had not spoken to Gentile, thus violating the federal Lanham Act, which prohibits deceptive trade practices. The actor also alleged that the paper misappropriated his name and likeness without his permission. He sought compensation for damage allegedly done to his reputation by the suggestion that he willingly gave an interview to the Enquirer. He also sought profits made by the paper as a result of the alleged misappropriation.

The jury agreed with Eastwood, awarding him $150,000 in damages – – half for his reputation and half for the Enquirer’s unfair profit — and more than $650,000 in attorney’s fees.

On August 25, a three-judge panel of the appellate court affirmed the jury’s verdict. Writing for the court, Judge Alex Kozinski focused on the way the Enquirer allegedly manipulated the text of the interview to make it appear that Eastwood had spoken directly to Gentile. According to Kozinski, the jury could reasonably have found that, by using headlines like “Exclusive Interview” and coloring the dialogue with phrases such as “[Eastwood] said with a chuckle,” the paper deceptively implied that he spoke to its editor, thus creating a false impression about the source of the story. Even though the paper could not be held liable for damages unless its editors ran the story knowing it was false or showing a reckless disregard for the truth, the court held, the jury could reasonably have found that the Enquirer’s suggestion that the interview was an exclusive amounted to actual malice.

The court also found that the Enquirer’s false implication could have damaged Eastwood’s reputation by causing his fans to consider him a “a hypocrite for giving the Enquirer an ‘exclusive interview’ about his private life” or regard him as “essentially washed up as a movie star if he was courting publicity in a sensationalist tabloid.” (Eastwood v. National Enquirer; Media Counsel: Gerson Zweifach, Washington, D.C.)