Friday, December 2, 2016
C.A. Scraps Libel Action by Ousted ‘American Idol’ Contestant
Says Anti-SLAPP Motion Should Have Been Granted Because He Could Not Prevail; Website’s Statement, Overall, Conveyed an Accurate Picture
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
Corey Clark is seen in a still from the television series, “American Idol.”
The Court of Appeal for this district has ordered dismissal of an action for libel and false light invasion of privacy against a website that claimed that the plaintiff was booted off the Fox television show “American Idol,” on which he was a finalist, because he had beat up his sister.
That program was described last year in a federal appeals court opinion as “the highest-rated and most popular television program in U.S. history.”
A decade after the March 31, 2003 disqualification of Corey Clark from the nationally televised singing competition—in which viewers determined the winner—the website radaronline.com, operated by defendant Radar Online, LLC, negotiated with Clark for an exclusive on his side of the story as to his ouster. After Clark gave that story, instead, to a rival website, rumorfix.com, Radar in 2014 presented a feature on various past contestants on “American Idol,” saying, with respect to Clark:
“Corey Clark Disqualified After Beating Up Sister: Clark became controversial much later when he alleged an affair with [contest] Judge Paula Abdul, but when he competed on season 2, producers had to kick him off the show. After making it to the top nine, Idol bigwigs found out Clark had once been arrested for battery against his 15-year-old sister. The wannabe singer was promptly disqualified for not disclosing his past legal mess to AI, a violation of the rule.”
It was undisputed that the website was a public forum, and both the trial court and the appeals court deemed Clark’s 2003 ejectment from the show (which is no longer on the air) a matter of public interest—thus satisfying the first prong of the anti-SLAPP statute (speech on a public issue in a public forum). That, under the statute, shifted the burden to the plaintiff to show a probability of prevailing.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Allen White denied Radar’s anti-SLAPP motion, finding that Clark was apt to win. She wrote, in part:
“The gist of this statement is that Plaintiff was disqualified from America Idol because he actually ‘beat up’ his sister. However, Plaintiff has made a sufficient showing that the truth is that although he was arrested for battery, he was not convicted, and the battery charge against Plaintiff was dismissed….As such, it would appear that American Idol disqualified Plaintiff for purportedly failing to disclose his arrest to producers—a violation of the show’s rules—rather than because he ‘beat up’ his sister—a crime. Imputing the commission of a crime is defamatory on its face and would constitute libel per se.”
White added that other statements on the website had not been shown by Clark to be false but said that “because he has demonstrated that there is a probability of prevailing on his defamation claim based on the statement that he was disqualified for beating his sister, his defamation cause of action survives this special motion to strike.”
Div. Three of the appeals court, in an opinion Wednesday by Acting Justice Maria E. Stratton (filed the day before her return to the Los Angeles Superior Court), reversed, and directed that the anti-SLAPP motion be granted on remand. The opinion was not certified for publication.
“[T]o succeed on both libel and false light invasion of privacy, falsity must be proven….
“The trial court concluded that Clark satisfied this burden, focusing on the first line of the article, which stated: ‘Corey Clark Disqualified After Beating Up Sister.’ (Boldface omitted.) Separating this statement from the remainder of the article, the court found that the phrase was false since Clark was disqualified because he failed to disclose his battery arrest to Idol, not because he beat his sister. The court also parsed out three other statements from the publication and concluded that these were not defamatory because Clark had not shown that these statements were false.
“The trial court erred in analyzing the publication in fragments and focusing solely on one phrase.”
Stratton went on to say:
“When the single-paragraph publication is read as a whole, it is clear to the reader that Clark was removed from the Idol competition due to his failure to disclose his arrest for allegedly battering his sister in 2002. The body of the article explicitly stated that ‘producers had to kick [Clark] off the show’ when they ‘found out Clark had once been arrested for battery against his 15-year-old sister.’ When the phrase singled out by the trial court is read in context with these sentences, the publication cannot reasonably be interpreted to state that Clark was dismissed from Idol for actually beating his sister. Irrespective of the slight miswording of the initial phrase, the substance of the article is accurate and true.
“Furthermore, even if we assumed the article represented that Clark beat up his sister, Clark failed to prove this fact was materially false. Not once in his declaration did Clark deny beating up his sister. Clark solely attested that his sister denied that he beat her up and that his mother described the incident as a misunderstanding. He did not provide a declaration from either his sister or his mother to prove these points. Clark’s evasive and incomplete denial of the battery does not satisfy his burden to prove falsity.”
In dictum, Stratton said that White should not have reached the issue of whether Clark was destined to win, in the end. She wrote:
“Clark solely addressed the first prong of the SLAPP analysis regarding whether Radar’s conduct was protected free speech. Clark therefore utterly failed to satisfy his burden to state and substantiate a legally sufficient claim. On this basis alone, the anti-SLAPP special motion to strike should have been granted.”
The case is Clark v. Radar Online, B264085.
Representing Radar were Kelli Sager and Dan Laidman of Davis Wright Tremaine, who teamed with media law attorney Cameron Stracher, who is general counsel to American Media, Inc. in New York, who was granted pro hac vice status by Div. Three on July 16, 2015. Hollywood attorney Anthony N. Luti acted for Clark.
Clark commented in an email:
“What radar online published about me was not true or accurate. It was most certainly defamatory as radars article was completely false in regards to me. And they know it. They retaliated against me for giving my story to Rumor fix, a competing media company, and Radar essentially admitted that in writing prior to me even filing this lawsuit against them. Of course I shall seek remedy and I will challenge the constitutionality of the appellate courts decision.”
“Mr. Clark is obviously disappointed with the court of appeals’ recent ruling. The trial court analyzed all of the statements and came to a very different result. Accordingly, Mr. Clark is currently examining his further appellate options to hold Radar Online accountable for their actions and statements.”
“We are pleased that the appellate court agreed that Radar’s reporting about Mr. Clark’s ouster from American Idol was true, accurate, and not defamatory.”
Clark has incurred arrests other than that occurring in Tulsa on Oct. 12, 2002, in connection with the alleged battery of his sister.
He has brought other lawsuits relating to his ejection from “American Idol.”
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 8, 2015, affirmed the dismissal of Clark’s libel action against Viacom for reciting, on MTV News, a website it owns, the reasons Fox gave in 2003 for banishing him from its show. The court said the complaint by Clark and another former contestant was an “attempt to impose liability upon Viacom for FOX’s purported lie,” without alleging any falsehood on the part of Viacom.
On Nov. 20, 2014, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed all federal claims by Clark and other former contestants against Fox, American Idol Productions, Inc., and others based on those claims being time-barred.
A judge of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on June 12, 2014, dismissed Clark’s action against E! Entertainment Television and Fox based on the Jan. 27, 2012 airing of a program titled “E! True Hollywood Story: Paula Abdul.” It included reference to singer/actress Abdul’s denial of Clark’s claim that he had an affair with her while he was a contestant and that independent counsel hired by Fox determined the allegation to be false.
(It is Clark’s contention that based on the relation, and Abdul’s “mentoring” of him, he was apt to have won the competition, had his participation not been terminated.)
Although Clark’s action was brought within one year of the broadcast, the court held that under Tennessee’s single-publication rule, “Plaintiff’s claims are time-barred because they are based upon alleged defamatory statements which were first and widely published in 2005.”
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