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Wrestling promoter settles libel suit against TV watchdog

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    NMU         NEW YORK         Libel         Jul 25, 2002    

Wrestling promoter settles libel suit against TV watchdog

  • Agreeing to pay a $3.5 million settlement, Parents Television Council apologized and said it was wrong for blaming the deaths of four children on World Wrestling Entertainment’s television shows.

World Wrestling Entertainment has won $3.5 million, a retraction and an apology in settling its defamation lawsuit against a nonprofit group that blamed the deaths of four children on the wrestling program “Smackdown.”

“It was premature to reach that conclusion when we did, and there is now ample evidence to show that conclusion was incorrect,” L. Brent Bozell III, president of Parents Television Council, said in an apology posted on the group’s Web site, www.parentstv.org.

“It was wrong to have stated or implied that WWE or any of its programs caused these tragic deaths.”

The settlement, reached July 3, required the public retraction and an apology to WWE executives. Bozell also will apologize to WWE advertisers if the wrestling promoter requests, said Jerry McDevitt, attorney for the wrestling group.

WWE sued Parents Television Council in November 2000 in federal district court in New York. Representatives of the media-monitoring council and its parent organization, Media Research Center, said publicly that children mimicking wrestling moves from “Smackdown” were causing the deaths of other children.

In fund-raising literature, the council also claimed that 30 to 40 advertisers had pulled ads from “Smackdown!” The council gave potential contributors a videotape attacking the WWE.

A federal district judge refused to dismiss the suit last year. A jury could find that the statements were defamatory and made with actual malice — knowledge that the statements were false or reckless disregard for the truth, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin ruled on May 24, 2001. Chin also ruled that statements made during fund-raising pitches were commercial speech that deserved less protection under the First Amendment than noncommercial speech.

WWE argued that wrestling moves from “Smackdown” could not be tied to the children’s deaths because the show did not begin airing until after three of the incidents and only two days before the fourth death.

In his retraction, Bozell said the Parents Television Council relied on false information, specifically in the case of Lionel Tate, a 14-year-old who was prosecuted in 1999 in Florida for the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. Tate’s attorney argued that the boy was mimicking what he had seen on wrestling shows. The Parents Television Council repeated that argument in its attack on WWE. Tate’s defense was rejected, and the boy was sentenced to life in prison.

The council was told that Tate was watching a WWE program when he assaulted the girl, Bozell’s retraction says. “In fact, Lionel Tate was watching the ‘Flintstones’ and a cartoon entitled ‘Cow and Chicken,’ ” the retraction says.

The council also made inaccurate statements about the number of WWE advertisers who withdrew from “Smackdown,” the retraction says. Many of the companies the council said had withdrawn their ads never advertised on the show, the statement says.

(World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc. v. Bozell) MD

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