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Wrestling promoter can continue libel suit against parents group

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW YORK         Libel         May 30, 2001    

Wrestling promoter can continue libel suit against parents group

  • Calling the comments commercial in nature, a federal district judge found that the criticism of the WWF by a children’s television organization was not protected by the First Amendment.

The World Wrestling Federation may continue its defamation suit against the Parents Television Council, a federal district court in New York ruled on May 25. Judge Denny Chin ruled that PTC statements that children mimicking WWF wrestlers have harmed other children were defamatory and made with actual malice, and therefore withstood a motion to dismiss on First Amendment grounds.

Members of the PTC, a media-monitoring organization, said earlier this year that four children “have had their lives tragically cut short by peers who were emulating wrestling moves.” The Los Angeles-based organization said the children learned the moves from watching the television wrestling program WWF “Smackdown!.” The organization’s comments followed the most recent incident when in January, Lionel Tate, 14, of Florida, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a six-year-old girl. His attorney argued that Tate was merely emulating wrestling moves from television and did not intend to kill the girl.

In literature used to raise money, the PTC also claimed that between 30 and 40 advertisers had already pulled support for the show. The outfit distributed a videotape to potential contributors that attacked the WWF and used portions of its broadcasts.

The WWF promptly sued PTC and others, alleging, among other claims, that both statements were defamatory and false. The WWF argued that the children could not have been influenced by the WWF because “Smackdown!” began airing after three of the incidents occurred, and two days before the fourth. PTC moved to dismiss the suit because it claimed its speech was protected by the First Amendment.

The court ruled that the First Amendment would not supplant the defamation claims because the case involved commercial speech, which merits less First Amendment protection. The court found that the speech was commercial because the statements were used in fund-raising literature.

Noting that the parents group used words like “criminally irresponsible,” and “evil,” Chin said that a reasonable jury “could certainly infer reckless disregard for the truth and/or spite, ill will, and an intent to harm from these and other objective facts.”

Chin next ruled that the WWF sufficiently alleged that the PTC statements were false. Here the court pointed to the blatant misrepresentations by PTC as to who truly advertised on “Smackdown!” and how many sponsors had withdrawn support.

The judge also ruled that the statements were capable of defamatory meaning, noting that blaming an organization for “the deaths of at least four children exposed the WWF to shame and disgrace.”

Chin also found that the PTC knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard of the truth, noting the errors with objective facts such as the true number of advertisers who had pulled support and when “Smackdown!” began airing.

(World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc. v. Bozell; Media counsel: Thomas A. Leghorn, Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, New York; Robert Sparks Jr., Linda Stiles Shively, Herge, Sparks & Christopher, McLean, Va.) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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