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Police officer gets green light to sue singer for slander

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NINTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Dec 4, 2002    

Police officer gets green light to sue singer for slander

  • A federal appeals panel in Pasadena ruled Dec. 4 that a Beverly Hills police officer who arrested pop singer George Michael in 1998 can go forward with a slander suit against the entertainer.

Marcelo Rodriguez, the Beverly Hills police officer who arrested British pop singer George Michael in 1998 for committing lewd acts in a men’s restroom in Will Rogers Park, can sue the singer for slander, a federal appeals court in Pasadena (9th Cir.) ruled Dec. 4.

The dispute between Michael and Rodriguez began in September 1998 after Michael, whose legal name is Georgios Panayiotou, released the song and music video “Outside,” which made references to the incident. In later broadcast interviews, Michael responded to questions about the arrest by claiming Rodriguez had entrapped him and committed lewd acts himself.

“He played a game called . . . I’ll show you mine, you show me yours and I’ll take you down to the police station,” Michael said during a guest appearance on the David Letterman Show in November 1998. Rodriguez listed seven other similar statements in his complaint.

In response, Rodriguez called Michael’s broadcast statements, the song’s lyrics and the video slanderous under California law and took action against Michael in state court. The case was moved to federal court, which dismissed Rodriguez’s claims of slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Another district court later dismissed an amended complaint from Rodriguez.

The police officer appealed the dismissal of his slander claim with regard to the statements made by Michael. The appeals panel reversed the lower court’s decision, allowing Rodriguez’s suit to go forward.

For a statement to be classified as slanderous, the person making a defamatory statement must have known the statement was false at the time of delivery or acted with reckless disregard of whether the statement was true or false.

“Michael’s statements asserted the precise factual nature of his accusation,” wrote appellate Judge A. Wallace Tashima. “And charged Rodriguez with the specific and objectively verifiable acts of genital exposure and masturbation. These are provably false factual assertions of what Rodriguez was accused of having committed.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said Michael was responding to what he saw as “unfair police practices.”

“By allowing the suit to proceed,” Reinhardt wrote, the majority gives law enforcement officers a tool to silence speech on a topic of critical public importance — police misconduct. Under California law, Michael’s speech criticizing the manner of his arrest at the hands of the police deserves more protection.”

(Rodriguez v. Panayiotou) JL

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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