Gennifer Flowers may proceed with defamation suit

Libel | Feature | November 19, 2002

    NMU         NINTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Nov 19, 2002    

Gennifer Flowers may proceed with defamation suit

  • A federal court of appeals reinstated claims brought by Bill Clinton's purported former lover against ex-White House aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

"Long after the public spotlight has moved on in search of fresh intrigue, the lawyers remain," wrote Judge Alex Kozinski in a Nov. 12 opinion that brought new life to defamation and privacy claims brought by Gennifer Flowers against former Clinton aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

Flowers claims Carville and Stephanopoulos defamed her and placed her in a false light in statements the aides made following a press conference Flowers held in 1992.

At the press conference, Flowers -- who initially denied allegations that she had an affair with then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton but then changed her story -- played tapes of conversations she had secretly recorded between herself and Clinton.

News reports following the press conference said the tapes might have been doctored.

Both Carville and Stephanopoulos made statements, in interviews conducted years later, referring to Flowers's tapes as "doctored" or "selectively edited." Stephanopoulos also discussed the possibility that the tapes were doctored in his published memoirs, All Too Human: A Political Education.

The court said that statements asserting that Flowers doctored the tapes could be defamatory, even if Carville and Stephanopoulos were simply repeating news reports on the alleged editing.

"[U]nless defendants knew the news reports were false or had some reason to doubt their accuracy, their reliance is protected by the First Amendment," the court explained. "But if it turns out that defendants knew the news reports were wrong -- or acted with reckless indifference in the face of some clear warning sign -- then they weren't entitled to repeat them publicly and later claim that they were merely expressing nondefamatory opinions."

The lower court had held the aides' statements to be nondefamatory "opinions."

Among the statements at issue is a comment Stephanopoulos made in a CNBC interview in 2000 with Tim Russert.

In response to Russert's questioning about the tapes, Stephanopoulos said: "Oh, it was absolutely his voice, but they were selectively edited in a way -- to create some -- some impression."

Flowers included Little, Brown & Co., the publisher of Stephanopoulos's memoirs, as a defendant in the suit.

For purposes of defamation law, Flowers is a public figure, who can recover only upon a showing of actual malice. Actual malice is defined as knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the fact that statements about a person were false.

The court refused to reinstate claims based on other comments by Stephanopoulos, who at one point called the sex scandal "tabloid trash," "crap" and "garbage." Those comments, the court said, were "mere rhetorical hyperbole" or "generalized invective" and could not be the basis of a defamation claim.

Flowers' suit also included claims against Hillary Clinton, claiming claiming that the former First Lady lead a conspiracy to have presidential aides defame her and orchestrated break-ins at Flowers's home. Those claims were thrown out, because they were brought too late.

Flowers is pursuing a career as a cabaret singer. She claims that, as a result of the "conspiracy" against her by former Clinton insiders, "her reputation has wilted and her blossoming career as a Las Vegas lounge singer has been nipped in the bud," according to the court.

(Flowers v. Carville; Counsel for defendants Stephanopoulos and Little, Brown & Co.: Laura Handman, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Washington, D.C.) -- WT


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