District court dismisses defamation suit accusing creator of docudrama series When They See Us and distributor Netflix of misrepresenting Reid Technique interrogation process developed by plaintiffs, holding that First Amendment protects nonfactual assertions.
Plaintiff John E. Reid and Associates Inc. filed a defamation suit against Netflix Inc., Ava DuVernay and Array Alliance Inc. accusing the Netflix series When They See Us, which portrays the harsh interrogation and wrongful conviction of five young men of color for a rape they did not commit, of misrepresenting the Reid Technique, a structured interview and interrogation process popular with law enforcement agencies around the world. Plaintiff’s claim was primarily based on a scene in the fourth and final episode of the series, in which a prosecutor exclaims to one of the law enforcement officials who interrogated the young men that the Reid Technique has been “universally rejected.” The officer responds, “I don’t know what the f---ing Reid Technique is.” The district court held that the statement was the kind of loose, hyperbolic rhetoric that is a protected part of the nation’s discourse.
The court found that the social and literary context of When They See Us and the scene in the bar in which the statement was made—as well as the nonverifiable nature of the phrase “universally rejected” and its imprecise, hyperbolic meaning—protect Netflix from liability for claiming that the Reid Technique has been “universally rejected.” The court further held that the statement did not reasonably and in context paint the technique with a defamatory brush. On plaintiff’s claim of false light, the court also concluded that corporations like Reid cannot bring actions for false light because a corporation has no personal right of privacy.
The district court also dismissed the case against DuVernay for lack of personal jurisdiction, as the court found that neither DuVernay nor Array Alliance had minimum contacts with the state of Illinois. The court reasoned that the complaint did not allege that either Array or DuVernay exercised any control over Netflix, instructed Netflix to offer the series for streaming in Illinois or did anything else to purposefully target residents of Illinois. The court further held that whether Netflix had the requisite minimum contacts was immaterial to the analysis because each defendant’s contacts with the forum state must be assessed individually.
Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Kamilah Moore.