The Indian tribe Cuyaga Nation and tribal council member Clint Halftown sued Showtime alleging that an episode of the television series Billions falsely portrayed them as having been involved in an illegal casino land deal, bribery of a public official, and blackmail. Defamation is a communication that harms the reputation of another so as to lower the person in the opinion of the community.
In July 2020, New York Trial Judge Kathryn E. Freed dismissed the suit, finding the Cayuga Nation cannot sue for defamation in response to the series because the allegedly defamatory material involved the tribe as a governing body, not its individual members.
This case is known as a libel-in-fiction case, where a story allegedly defames a person even though it is fictional. Here, there was a character identified in the show as “council member Jane Halftown” who is portrayed as engaging in criminal behavior. In real life, there is a male member of the council with the name Clint Halftown.
The court found that the allegedly defamatory matter in the episode was not “of and concerning” Halftown, because the fictional character Jane Halftown was not “so closely akin” to plaintiff Clint Halftown that a viewer “would have no difficulty linking the two.” Moreover, a disclaimer plays during the end credits stating “The events and characters depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental.” On February 23, 2021, the dismissal was upheld on appeal by the New York Appellate Division.
In 1964, in the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the requirement of a defamatory publication must be published in such a manner that they “reasonably relate to specific individuals.” The defamatory statement need not name or identify the plaintiff specifically, but the plaintiff bears the burden to show that the publication was “of and concerning” him. For example, extrinsic facts can be used to connect the statement to a plaintiff where the plaintiff is not identified by name. When the publication identifies a group, the statements “must reasonably relate to a certain individual member or members.” Statements about a large group as a whole—without more specificity—are usually not actionable.
Filmmakers can protect themselves by making sure fictional characters cannot be mistaken for real people. They can give characters unusual names that no living individual would have, such as “Pussy Galore” in the James Bond film Goldfinger. They can check the phone book to see if any person with their character’s name reside at the location portrayed in their story. If there is a person in that community with the same name or a similar one, they can consider setting the story in a fictional locale. Also, filmmakers should always remember to add a disclaimer stating that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Read the case.