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Reality show about drugs in jail may defame inmate's wife

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A Nashville, Tenn., woman can pursue her defamation lawsuit stemming from a prison reality show that featured footage unknowingly taken…

A Nashville, Tenn., woman can pursue her defamation lawsuit stemming from a prison reality show that featured footage unknowingly taken of the woman while she visited her husband in prison, a federal judge ruled last week.

Marlorita Battle sued A&E Television Networks and producers Wild Eyes Productions for what she labelled "defamation/false light" and intentional infliction of emotional distress regarding an episode of the series “The Squad: Prison Police.” Battle alleged the show portrayed her as someone potentially smuggling drugs into the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The media defendants moved to dismiss the claims, arguing that the program was not capable of a defamatory meaning, and did not constitute outrageous and intolerable conduct sufficient for a claim of emotional distress.

Although a defamation claim often overlaps with a claim for false light invasion of privacy, the torts are two separate causes of action under Tennessee law. U.S. District Judge Kevin H. Sharp noted this in his July 27 order in the case, Marlorita Battle v. A&E Television Networks LLC and Wild Eyes Productions Inc., but did not evaluate the statements at issue under a false light analysis. Instead, he ruled that the possibility of a jury finding the program leveled false and defamatory accusations against the plaintiff precluded dismissal of both claims.

However, Sharp granted the defendants' motion to dismiss Battle's emotional distress claim.

The episode featuring Battle focused on a problematic influx of drugs being smuggled into the prison. A Tennessee Department of Corrections special agent, John Fisher, spoke on camera about information officials received about an inmate’s wife bringing drugs into the institution on a regular basis. He then said "we're expecting this lady today" while pointing to a picture of Battle.

The camera then turns to Battle visiting her husband with their toddler child. During the visit, Fisher remotely observes through cameras in the visitation area what he believes is a drug transaction. When the couple hugs, the camera zooms to Battle’s lower back, where her husband’s hand is moving around the waist band. Battle then goes to the bathroom, a move Fisher said he found suspicious because women often hide drugs in their vaginal cavities.

When she returned from the bathroom, Battle sat next to her husband with what looked like something in her hand. Fisher then said: “I think we got them.”

The show then said a later strip search of the husband revealed there was no drug transaction between the couple, and the prison eventually learned it had been a correctional officer who smuggled drugs. Fisher told the camera that the couple was “a false alarm.”

The TV network and production company argued that the documentary program did not convey a defamatory meaning because it did not say Battle committed a crime during her visit to her husband, but rather accurately reported the result of an investigation: No drugs were found during Battle's visit, despite officials' suspicions that she may have been smuggling drugs into the prison.

The court rejected the defendants' argument. Although the program indicated a strip search of Battle's husband did not produce the drugs officials alleged Battle illegally passed to him, the "overall way [in which] the Program is presented" could lead a jury to conclude that Battle "was a drug smuggler who just happened not to get caught on [the day in question]," the court said. This impression is enforced by Fisher's comments during the program's end credits that "if you are dirty, if you are smuggling in contraband, drugs . . . then we're going to catch you. We might not get you today, maybe next week, next month, next year, but eventually, we're going to catch up with you," according to the court.

“The clear implication from the opening is that the show is about a conspiracy to bring drugs into Riverbend,” Sharp said. “[The plaintiff] is specifically identified as the one who is thought to be bringing drugs to her husband.”

In addition to their contention that the program's lack of a defamatory meaning protected it from liability, the media defendants also asserted that the substantial truth of the show defeated a defamation claim against it. However, the determination of whether an allegedly defamatory statement is true or not is a question for the jury to decide, the court held.

In dismissing the plaintiff's emotional distress claim, the court emphasized the "high threshold standard" plaintiffs must meet to prevail on these claims. Accordingly, even though it may have caused “severe emotional trauma, mental anguish, stress, humiliation and damage” to Battle after multiple people contacted her to ask why she appeared on the show as a drug dealer, the defendants' conduct of producing and airing the program was not something "beyond all bounds of decency" and "utterly intolerable in a civilized community," an average member of which would not be "le[d] . . . to exclaim, 'Outrageous'" when considering the conduct, the court said.