Libel

Libel Lawsuit Over Free Meek Documentary, Including Jay-Z, the Rolling Stone Company, and Amazon

The plaintiff is a former Philadelphia officer, who was charged with (and acquitted of) wrongly threatening people with a gun; she claims the documentary wrongly portrayed her as "dirty and dishonest."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In Williams v. ROC Nation, LLC, filed yesterday in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, former Philadelphia police officer Saqueta Williams (sometimes called Sequeta Williams) is suing over statements in Free Meek, a documentary about the criminal conviction of rapper Meek Mill. The defendants include Meek Mill himself, Jay-Z, Wenner Media (publishers of Rolling Stone), and amazon.com.

According to the Complaint, in 2017, Williams was involved in an off-duty incident in which she drew a gun on four women who she says beat her companion. She was prosecuted but eventually acquitted in February 2019. (For a story on the arrest, see here.)

Williams also ended up on a "Do Not Call List" maintained by the Philadelphia DA's office:

The Office of the Philadelphia District Attorney maintains a list identifying police officers who have histories of arrests, disciplinary actions, or providing false testimony.

Upon information and belief, the list divides the police officers names appearing on the list into groupings, classifying the police officers whose serious misconduct rendered them problematic as witnesses and others whose offenses were less serious.

Upon information and belief, the Philadelphia District Attorney directed employee prosecutors not to call some of the police officers whose names appear on the list as witnesses to offer testimony in criminal prosecutions….

But, the complaint says, the List indicates exactly what each officer was accused of; her entry didn't mention anything about "acts of dishonesty or corruption"; and she "was a police officer who was permitted to be called as witness by prosecuting Philadelphia Assistant District Attorneys with the approval of a Deputy Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney." (Indeed, as I read the List, it notes that she was charged for TT [presumably terroristic threats, though the List also mentions "IT," perhaps a typo for "TT"] and SA [simple assault], and the instructions, presumably to prosecutors, are "Disclose Arrest" and "Do not call without Depty approval.")

Yet, despite that, the complaint claims, Free Meek (which premiered in August 9, 2019), wrongly accused her of being "dirty and dishonest": allegedly, in season 1, episode 4,

[R]eporter Paul Solotaroff [said,] "There is a reason why people call this town Filthadelhia."

[Solotaroff said,] "Now there is a new District Attorney in town, and just the last couple of months we have been learning from the District Attorney's Office about a list of dirty and dishonest cops."

[Bradley Bridge said,] "The DA's Office generated a specific list that has 66 names of police officers on it. There have been findings by the police department the officers have lied to internal affairs, to other police officers, or in court."

[During Bridge's commentary,] a graphic of an image of the plaintiff Saqueta Williams is displayed on screen.

This, the complaint argues, "imputes the impression in the minds of the average persons among whom it is intended to circulate that the plaintiff Saqueta Williams was a dirty and dishonest police officer," which is false and defamatory. An interesting libel case, which I plan to watch over the coming months.

NEXT: Above The Law Post Not Libelous or "Unlawful Discrimination," Notwithstanding Its Supposed "Homophobic" Insults

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  1. Uff-Da. I guarantee there is much more to this story, particularly the part where she pulled a gun on a number of people because her companion was being threatened.

    1. Funny just looked up “Uff-Da”, never heard it before. Are you a midwesterner of scandinavian descent ?

      1. Momma was a Wisconsin girl…. 🙂

  2. Prof Volokh I remember you writing about a defamation case arising from Katie Couric’s pro gun-control documentary. The Virginia Defense League (or something similar) was being interviewed during the documentary.

    Couric cut the footage to make it seem as if they were flummoxed by her question about background checks. The clip showed them awkwardly sitting silently for 10 seconds as if they were at a loss for words. This footage was from before they actually started shooting.

    The 4th Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs. i am not sure whether they rejected their defamation by deceitful editing theory wholesale or simply held that plaintiff didnt suffer an injury as per Virginia law (because the implication that they were vexed by Couric’s question didnt actually call into question their occupational competency, at least according to the court).

    This would seem to be a somewhat similar situation, where the documentary is edited so as to imply that Officer Williams is “dirty and dishonest” and (more persuasively as far as her legal argument is concerned ) that she lied to internal affairs or her department superiors. If it is genuinely defamatory, this claim would call into question her competency at her occupation. Im not sure if this would be determinative or if the emphasis on occupation was just a peculiarity of Virginia defamation law.

    1. I don’t see how the cases are related. In the Couric case, she didn’t make a defamatory statement. She created an incorrect visual record and let the viewer make leaps of judgement from it. In this case, an explicit statement was made and then a specific individual was presented in the context of that statement. Although they didn’t explicitly connect the dots via words, the connection between the general statement and the explicit individual seems fairly straightforward.

      1. But if that were true then things like the early silent films would be categorically unprotected too, as they’re not conveying anything. Artwork, statues, etc would all be unprotected (though printed pictures of them might be).

        That would also mean that an image of President Trump laying on a bed and being urinated on, with text underneath say thing “we have video evidence of this” could not be defamatory, which it most certainly is, even as applied to comments about the president (unless of course they do have such a video).

        Instead the communication must include all of the information communicated rather than only the words themselves. “You’ve got a nice shop, pity if something bad happened to it” is facially non threatening, and under your method would be absolutely protected. It is not, just as the visual conveyance of false information is not absolutely protected.

    2. The 4th Circuit assessed first whether the misleading editing was defamatory on its face, and then whether it was defamatory when considered in context, and found the answer to both questions was “no”. By their understanding of Virginia law the first determination depended on whether it impugned anyone’s occupational competence.

      1. And the “occupational competence” was the determinative factor in that case (assuming it was correctly judged). Had one of them been a lawyer that would have gone the other way.

        1. Robert, maybe I am misreading your comment, but Daniel Hawes, one of the plaintiff/appellants in the Couric case, was a lawyer.

  3. So it’s an interesting case because Ofc. Williams is on the “dirty and dishonest” list, but is only “dirty”? Or is the plaintiff’s position that “dirty” means only “corrupt” and not otherwise “criminal” (or being generous “accused of criminal acts”)?

    1. I suspect it’s interesting because it’s a libel accusation based on an implication due to a visual presentation and not based on an explicit statement

      1. The problem being, she is, factually, on a list of dirty and corrupt cops. Dafamatory statements have to be objectively false.

        1. What if the naughty list is itself defamatory?

          1. Then the officer sued the wrong defendants.

        2. The list is a do not call list and include dirty and dishonest cops but also includes cops who may have become notorious for some other reason, like being involved in a high profile incident, without doing anything wrong.

          1. Does that somehow make her name not appear on the list?

    2. Which is why I expect the claim to fail as being substantially true.

      The filmmakers may have over characterized the list, but unless they knew that explicitly (and by using the abbreviations without a key I think that unlikely) they’re likely to win as being materially correct

      Alternatively their accusation is opinion based on disclosed facts, which is absolutely protected. They essentially said “she’s dishonest, we know because she’s on this list.” That provides any listener to see the list, ascertain it’s contents and meaning, and decide if their characterization is correct. Had they said, “she’s dishonest because of secret information we have” that would be entirely different, of course.

    3. Her complaint is that the list is not a list of dirty and dishonest cops, though it contains cops who are dirty and/or dishonest, and that she is being defamed by the claims that it is.

  4. Just for some additional context, Bradley Bridge is a pretty high-up attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which provides defense counsel to juveniles and indigents in state court in Philadelphia.

  5. People making statements about police officers should, if those statements relate to their work as police officers, enjoy qualified immunity against defamation claims. An officer should only be able to prevail on a defamation claim if it was, at the time of the alleged defamation, clearly established that the allegedly defamatory statement was false.

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