ENTERTAINMENT LITIGATION: WHAT IS YOUR REPUTATION WORTH?

PROTECTING CELEBRITIES FROM DEFAMATION AND INVASION OF PRIVACY

It’s been said that “a good reputation is more valuable than money.” When it comes to celebrities — and most recently sports figures — reputation is both valuable and easily tarnished. In this electronic age, damaging information can circulate instantly through cyberspace. Rumor quickly becomes generally accepted fact. Pictures can go “viral” and disseminated to millions at the speed of light. Once established, public perception becomes very difficult if not impossible to change.

So what can be done to protect a celeb’s privacy and reputation — and at what cost?

THE PUBLIC’S INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR SCANDAL

The public loves looking into the private lives of celebrities. Successful (and undoubtedly profitable) websites like TMZ.com and perezhilton.com revel in sordid details about celebrities’ private lives. Modern cell phones with cameras and video capabilities, coupled with the explosion of YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook, provide virtually anyone with the means to record and publish information — instantaneously — to millions of people. Even traditional media isn’t immune from the desire to feed the public’s fascination with scandal — as recently proven by the news’ helicopter coverage of Britney Spears and her recent problems.

Truth and any respect for privacy can often become lost in the quest for the juiciest tidbit of information. Paparazzi engage in often dangerous stunts to get what they want. Keanu Reeves discovered as much when a photographer injured himself — and sued Reeves — trying to get a photo. (Reeves won the case after having to endure a trial.) Compromising photographs and videos of the famous are worth a hefty ransom — often without regard to the legitimacy of the source.

AN AGGRESSIVE RESPONSE

Information about celebrities (true or false ones) often comes from a discreet, identifiable source. However, if that information is republished by major publications or wire services, then the damage could be irreparable.

When the potentially damaging information is private information that was illegally obtained, then aggressive legal action can and should be taken to prevent any dissemination. Celebs have successfully obtained injunctions against the publication of compromising photos or videos which were stolen or taken without permission.

Those are the easy cases.

THE DEFAMATION LAWSUIT

It’s more difficult to assess are situations involving stories or statements about the celeb which may (or may not) be defamatory. Often, the emotional reaction to an unfavorable story is to lash back — sometimes in the courts. Indeed, there are many recent examples where the famous have filed — or threatened to file — defamation cases to “prove” their innocence in the face of unfavorable press.

In 2004, Marion Jones sued BALCO founder, Victor Conte, after stories based on Conte’s statements about her steroid use were published. Last year, Roger Clemens did the same in Texas, suing his former trainer, Brian McNamee, over statements McNamee made about Clemens’ alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. Last month, University of Mississippi head basketball coach, Andy Kennedy, reportedly filed a defamation suit against a cab driver who accused him of assault and racial slurs and after Kennedy was arrested for the alleged assault. Finally, earlier this month, NFL star, Adam “Pacman” Jones threatened to sue ESPN for a story the network ran about Jones’ alleged involvement in a shooting which reportedly led to Jones’ release from the Dallas Cowboys.

The burden upon a public figure in the United States to prove defamation is great. Because of First Amendment concerns, public figures are held to a much higher standard than a private individual. For this reason, some celebrities — Lance Armstrong being the most notable, recent example — have chosen to file their defamation lawsuits in the United Kingdom, which does not have the same legal hurdles as we do here in the United States.

A defamation lawsuit is certainly a valid (if aggressive) strategy to vindicate your reputation against libelous accusations. However, a celebrity — and more importantly his or her representatives — must be certain that the story and/or accusations are false and that there are no other “character” issues that may detract from the ultimate goal of vindicating the celeb’s name. Defamation suits in the United States are difficult enough without any side shows.

Here, any analysis must consider the difficulty of succeeding in the case as well as the potential for further embarrassment if the facts aren’t as solid as originally thought. For example, Jones had to backtrack significantly and settle her civil case when she pled guilty to lying about her steroid use to a grand jury. Clemens has had embarrassing personal details about his relationships revealed to the public — since such facts arguably pertain to his reputation and character allegedly damaged by McNamee’s statements. Kennedy and Jones will face similar obstacles if they choose to pursue their claims.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A lawsuit is an aggressive, proactive strategy which can be an effective tool to prevent dissemination of private and/or embarrassing information and to redress false defamatory statements made against you. However, particularly for possible defamation suits, you must take extreme care to ensure that the accusations are false and that there are no potential embarrassing facts that may be revealed during the course of any litigation. Celebrity representatives must ask tough questions before advising on any strategy and defuse any emotion-driven desire to “get even.” Otherwise, a lawsuit may do more harm than good.