Wednesday, April 17, 2002
C.A. Rejects Defamation Suit by ‘Multimillionaire’ Contestant
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A woman who was ridiculed on a San Francisco radio show after she declined to come on the air and discuss her experiences as a “reality” television contestant has no defamation claim against the radio station or its personnel, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Five threw out Jennifer Seelig’s claim against Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, saying San Francisco Superior Court Judge David A. Garcia erred in denying Infinity’s motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP law.
Seelig’s complaint that she was labeled a “loser,” “a chicken butt,” and a “skank” did not amount to an actionable claim for defamation, the appellate panel ruled.
Seelig was a contestant on the program “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire.” The show, which aired in February 2000, gave Seelig and 49 other women the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to marry, as part of the program, a stranger whom they couldn’t see and about whom nothing was revealed during or before the program, except that he was supposed to be a multimillionaire—an assertion later proven dubious.
The prize came complete with prenuptial agreement, a $35,000 wedding ring, and a new car. Losing contestants received the cost of the trip to Las Vegas, where the program was taped, and some gifts.
Seelig didn’t get to be a finalist. Her participation in the broadcast lasted less than one minute, during which she gave her name and said she was from San Francisco and worked in sales at radio station KFRC.
KFRC is owned by Infinity, which also owns KLLC. After Multimillionaire was taped, but before it aired, Seelig was invited to discuss the experience on KLLC’s “Sarah and Vinnie” morning program, but declined.
On the morning of the day the television show aired, “Sarah and Vinnie” co-hosts Sarah Clark and Vincent Crackhorn discussed the program on-air with producer Uzette Salazar, who had made the overture to Seelig.
Seelig’s name was never mentioned. But after Crackhorn noted that one of the contestants was a “local loser” who had declined to come on the air because she didn’t want to be embarrassed, Salazar mentioned that the woman was “the ex-wife of someone who works at our sister station down the hall” and said the ex-husband had commented on “what a big skank she is.”
When Clark questioned whether someone should be called a skank on the air, Salazar cautioned that it was “coming from a jilted ex-husband” and questioned “[w]hat does he know.”
In her complaint and opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion, Seelig alleged that she received numerous calls from individuals, business associates and personal friends who said they were aware she had been humiliated on the broadcast. She accused Infinity, Crackhorn, Clark, and Salazar of slander, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress.
But Justice Mark Simons, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that Seelig “voluntarily subjected herself to inevitable scrutiny and potential ridicule by the public and the media” by going on the television program. The court, he said, was unpersuaded by her argument that she was attacked not for going on television, but for refusing to go on the radio show.
Seelig, he said, had been subjected to a “radio variant” of the “empty chair” scenario, in which a political candidate or advocate uses an empty chair to signify an opponent’s refusal to debate. The tactic was apparently first used by John Foster Dulles in his unsuccessful campaign against Herbert Lehman in a special U.S. Senate election held in New York in 1949.
“Local loser” and “chicken butt,” Simons reasoned, were statements of “subjective judgment” that “are too vague to be capable of being proven true or false.” California law recognizes that “rhetorical hyperbole” is not defamation, he explained, citing a 1999 Court of Appeal case holding that the phrases “creepazoid attorney” and “loser wannabe lawyer” were not actionable.
“Big skank,” he went on to say, is also too vague to be the subject of a suit.. While the plaintiff asserted that skank means “a woman of loose morals,” Simons wrote, there was no proof the phrase is generally accepted as having that meaning.
The jurist went on to say:
“The irreverence of the Sarah and Vinnie morning radio program, which may strike some as humorous and others as gratuitously disparaging, is not atypical of this genre....Listening to the tape of the radio broadcast confirms the nonserious nature of the discussion apparent from the written transcript. The colloquy comes across as light banter between the participants, frequently punctuated by laughter, concerning the Show and plaintiff’s unwillingness to be interviewed on defendants’ radio program without receiving written assurance that defendants would not ‘bag on her.’ The skank remark, the ensuing colloquy chiding Uzette for having made the remark, and Uzette’s efforts to assuage it by noting the source had been a ‘jilted ex-husband,’ are presented in such a way that no reasonable listener would take them as factual pronouncements.”
San Francisco attorney Christopher B. Dolan, who represents Seelig, said his client was considering asking for Supreme Court review.
His client, he said, was “very upset” the court failed to recognize the common usage of the term “skank.” The “shock jocks,” as he termed the defendants, “fully understood what it meant,” as did the audience, Dolan told the MetNews.
Infinity’s attorney, Frederick F. Mumm of the Los Angeles office of Davis Wright Tremaine, said he could not comment other than to say that Infinity was pleased with the result.
The case is Seelig v. Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, 02 S.O.S. 1815.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company