On March 15, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania held that defamation claims against media mogul Oprah Winfrey could proceed to trial. The plaintiff, Larato Mzamane, is the former headmistress of Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She has sued Oprah for defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Oprah’s team moved for summary judgment, but Judge Eduardo Robreno of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania would only agree to dismiss the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, since Mzamane could not show that she suffered any physical injury as a result of Oprah’s actions. That means that Oprah will have to go to court to defend against Mzamane’s remaining defamation and false light allegations.

Judge Robreno refused to grant summary judgment on the defamation claims because he found that some of the statements Oprah made in the wake of the scandal were “of and concerning” Mzamane and were capable of a defamatory meaning. Under Pennsylvania law, a statement is defamatory if it “tends to blacken a person’s reputation or expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or injure him in his business or profession.” This includes statements that “tend to lower a person in the estimation of the community, deter third persons from associating with him, or adversely affect his fitness for the proper conduct of his lawful business or profession.” As a result of her dismissal from the Leadership Academy, Mzamane claims her reputation was damaged to the extent that she struggled to find another education job for more than a year.

Mzamane’s legal claims stem from a scandal that unfolded in 2007 when several students from Oprah’s Leadership Academy accused dorm parents of sexual abuse. Mzamane was immediately suspended and later fired from the school. According to Mzamane, Oprah never brought the abuse claims to her attention and never attempted to question her directly as to her knowledge of the alleged abusive conduct. In her suit, Mzamane quotes Oprah telling parents that “any person that has caused harm” to students would be let go. In the next sentence, Oprah says she fired Mzamane because she had “lost confidence” in her ability to run the school. Mzamane claims that Oprah’s public statements defamed the headmistress by implying that she was somehow involved in, or even acted to cover up, the alleged misconduct.

In court documents, Oprah attempts to defend herself by saying that she was merely expressing her opinions on the abuse scandal. Under Pennsylvania law, opinion statements are not actionable unless such opinion can be “reasonably understood to imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts justifying the opinion.” Judge Robreno rejected Oprah’s opinion defense, determining that Oprah’s statements satisfy the state law standard. He reasoned that Oprah’s criticism of Mzamane’s job performance, when received by the average listener, implied the existence of some undisclosed facts on which such criticism was based. Moreover, based on Oprah’s supervisory relationship to Mzamane and her role in the school, and her general status of fame and power, the average listener could reasonably presume that she was privy to such information.

Like all defamation suits, this case necessarily implicates the First Amendment. The seminal case in that regard is NY Times v. Sullivan Co., 376 U.S. 254 (1964), in which the Supreme Court held that a state cannot impose liability for allegedly defamatory comments concerning a public official absent a showing of “actual malice,” which requires a plaintiff to show that the defendant made the comments with “knowledge or falsity” or else “reckless disregard for the truth” of such statements. In Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323 (1974), the Supreme Court extended the NY Times actual malice rule to defamation suits involving three kinds of non-public persons–all purpose public figures, involuntary public figures, and limited purpose public figures.

This defamation suit is undeniably unique because of the status of Oprah as a defendant. But it is also unique because of Mzamane’s status as a plaintiff. Judge Robreno held that Mzamane was a “limited purpose public figure” for purposes of this defamation suit. Under Gertz, a private person might be a limited purpose public figure based on (1) whether the alleged defamation involved a public controversy; and (2) the nature and extent of the plaintiff’s involvement in that controversy. In this case, Judge Robreno determined that by accepting the position of headmistress at this unique type of school tied to someone as famous as Oprah, Mzamane voluntarily exposed herself to public attention. On the other hand, by electing to forego the option of questioning Mzamane directly as to her involvement in or knowledge of the abusive conduct, Oprah’s actions might very well satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard to show reckless disregard, thereby satisfying the actual malice standard.

This is not the first time Oprah has had to defend herself in a defamation suit. In 1998, Oprah successfully fended off a $12 million lawsuit filed by representatives of the beef industry who claimed she defamed the red meat. In that case, plaintiffs had to show that Oprah deliberately or recklessly made false statements that hurt their business. The court found that the statements were fact-based and thus did not violate state business defamation laws. Although she faces similarly high legal hurdles, it remains to be seen whether Mzamane will have more success than the Texas cattlemen.

Elizabeth M. Renieris

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