Judge Rules Katie Couric Did Not Defame Gun Advocates

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 18, 2017

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GunsA federal court judge has ruled that a documentary produced by Katie Couric, and including an interview with her, did not defame gun rights supporters.

As reported by Variety, the documentary, “Under the Gun” included an interview with Couric and members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group.

Couric asked the members how they proposed keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.

The members responded that felons should be allowed to have guns, and that preventing people from owning guns did not prevent crime.

Eight Seconds of Silence

Rather than showing the actual response, the documentary included eight seconds of silence, suggesting that the members didn’t have a response to the question.

Then, the film cuts to an image of the chamber of a revolver closing.

Couric later apologized for the deceptive editing.

However, two members of the group sued for defamation, seeking $13 million in damages. They contended that the documentary created a false impression.

Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the documentary suggested:

  • the plaintiffs had no basis for their opposition to background checks;  
  • they are uninformed notwithstanding their expertise in the areas of gun regulations and rights;
  • they were stumped by Couric’s question;  and
  • they are ignorant or unfit in their trades.

Defamation

The judge noted that in order to state a claim for defamation in Virginia (where the complaint was filed), the plaintiffs must publish an “actionable statement about the plaintiffs with the requisite intent.”

An “actionable” statement must be both false and defamatory, and, depending on the statement, must result in actual damages to the plaintiffs.

The judge ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims failed because the interview scene was not false.

Said the judge,

Under the Gun portrays members of the VCDL not answering the question posed by Couric. In reality, members of the VCDL did not answer the question posed by Couric.

They talked about background checks and gun laws generally, but did not answer the question of how to prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing guns without background checks. The editing simply dramatizes the sophistry of the VCDL members.

In addition, said the judge, the documentary was not defamatory:

Defamatory words damage a plaintiff’s reputation in the community or deter others from associating or dealing with him. Words that simply offend or insult the plaintiff do not qualify as defamatory; the words must “sting” the plaintiffs reputation.

Scorn and Ridicule

For example, noted the judge, falsely calling someone a convict, a perjurer, or a leper stings the reputation because these allegations “render that person odious and may hold him up to scorn and ridicule.”

Similarly, statements that impute plaintiffs are unfit in their profession — like calling someone a “lying lawyer” or a “dirty doctor” sting the reputation and may deter people from dealing with them.

The judge concluded that the film didn’t support the plaintiffs’ first two claims at all.

Regarding the third claim, the judge held:

The film does imply that the individual plaintiffs were stumped by Couric’s question. As presented by Under the Gun, members of the VCDL answered a handful of questions about guns and background checks, but then sat silently in the face of a question about how to prevent felons and terrorists from purchasing guns without the use of background checks. At worst, this shows artistically that they either cannot or will not answer the question. Their verbal responses during the interview showed the same thing.

Not having an answer to a question on a difficult and complex issue is not defamatory, said the judge.

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