Hustler has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal of a federal court ruling that said the magazine used the image of a murdered professional wrestler for commercial — not news — purposes that violated her family’s right-of-publicity interests.
Nancy Benoit was a model, wrestler, and wrestling manager who was killed, along with her young son, by her husband, WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, in 2007. The tragedy drew national attention because Chris Benoit’s alleged use of steroids leading up to the murders.
Hustler ran an article about Nancy Benoit, accompanied by nude photographs of her taken approximately 20 years before her death. Benoit’s mother, Maureen Toffoloni, said the magazine had violated her daughter’s right to prevent the commercial use of her image for advertising purposes.
The district court in Georgia dismissed Toffoloni’s claim because Benoit’s death was a “legitimate matter of public interest and concern” and the use of the article and photos was not purely commercial but newsworthy and therefore protected by the First Amendment and Georgia law.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the decision, stating that Toffoloni could assert a right of publicity claim because the photographs were 20 years old and therefore not sufficiently newsworthy. The court wrote that it was required to balance Benoit’s rights with the publisher’s First Amendment rights, “with an eye toward that which is reasonable and that which resonates with our community morals.”
LFP Publishing Group, Hustler’s publishing company, argued in its petition to the Supreme Court that the First Amendment requires a broad interpretation of the newsworthiness standard. The petition also stated that Supreme Court cases in the past have said that it is inappropriate for courts to engage in deciding whether an article is newsworthy.