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McKinney v. Morris

California appellate court strikes claims for defamation, misappropriation, and invasion of privacy defamation brought by a 1970s tabloid celebrity against the director and producers of the documentary Tabloid under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute.

California appellate court strikes claims for defamation, misappropriation, and invasion of privacy defamation brought by a 1970s tabloid celebrity against the director and producers of the documentary Tabloid under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute.

Plaintiff Joyce McKinney is a former beauty pageant contestant who, in the 1970s, was the subject of a tabloid media frenzy in England concerning her alleged kidnapping and rape of a Mormon missionary, Kirk Anderson, the so-called Manacled Mormon. Plaintiff, who fled England to avoid prosecution, claimed that Anderson was her fiancé, that he had consented to sex, and that she was attempting to rescue him from the Mormon Church. Defendant Errol Morris is an Academy Award-winning director who, along with the remaining defendants, produced a documentary film titled Tabloid, which focused on plaintiff’s experience with the tabloid press. Much of the film revolved around Morris’ five-to-six-hour interview of plaintiff. Plaintiff initially signed a release in 2009, agreeing to the use of her interview and story in a television documentary on how the tabloid press destroys privacy, and she later signed a separate release in 2010, when defendants decided to produce Tabloid as a full-length documentary instead.

Following the release of Tabloid in 2011, plaintiff sued Morris and other producers of the documentary for, among other things, defamation, invasion of privacy (based on intrusion on seclusion and false light), fraud, breach of contract, common law misappropriation, commercial misappropriation of likeness, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants moved to strike certain of the claims under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, on the grounds that the claims arose from defendants’ exercise of free speech and that plaintiff had signed written releases regarding the use of her interview, image, and story in Tabloid, for which plaintiff was paid. The trial court granted defendants’ motion to strike.

On appeal, the court affirmed that plaintiff’s claims arose from protected free speech activity, which included writing, filming, producing, distributing, publicizing, and promoting a film concerning a public issue or matter of public interest. Although the film concerned elements of plaintiff’s private life and role in a 30-year-old scandal that was not widely publicized in the United States, the film intertwined plaintiff’s story with the broader topic of tabloid journalism.

Second, plaintiff failed to establish a probability of prevailing on any cause of action because she failed to defeat defendants’ evidence that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public figure or to demonstrate that defendants acted with “actual malice.” Examining the totality of the circumstances, the court found that plaintiff was a limited-purpose public figure because she had agreed to be interviewed for a documentary, which she knew would be shown to the public. Plaintiff’s evidence of defendants’ showing hostility in dealing with plaintiff, making statements advertising the film, and failing to include certain materials in the film was insufficient to establish that any defendant “had a high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity . . . or subjectively entertained serious doubts as to the truth” of any materials in the film, and therefore no actual malice was shown.

Finally, defendants established that any misappropriation of plaintiff’s likeness and name was subject to a public interest/newsworthiness defense. Plaintiff’s history as a tabloid celebrity in the 1970s is a matter of widespread public interest, for which plaintiff has received numerous requests from media outlets to tell her story. Plaintiff was also contemplating writing a book regarding her experiences in the public eye. Because plaintiff failed to overcome defendants’ evidence in support of their defenses, the court granted defendants’ motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute.


For more information, please contact Jonathan Zavin, W. Allan Edmiston, David Grossman, Tal Dickstein or Meg Charendoff.

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