A new report shows why JonBenet Ramsey’s Brother’s defamation lawsuit against CBS is an immensely complicated case with no obvious solution.
In speaking with experts, Variety uncovered myriad factors that make the lawsuit uniquely challenging. In the lawsuit. Ramsey’s lawyers claim that the producers of CBS’s documentary series “The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey” recklessly insinuated that Burke Ramsey, who was nine years old at the time of his sister JonBenet’s death, killed her.
In speaking with numerous First Amendment legal experts, Variety has teased out why the lawsuit won’t be easily decided.
Ramsey’s lawyers have found 700 statements and instances that they claim support the “false and defamatory gist” of the documentary. They also point to all the facts that the show left out that support Ramsey’s innocence. But the claims of defamation will be fought with a freedom of speech defense and arguments that the documentary disclaimers remove culpability from the show’s producers.
“CBS will argue that a contextual analysis of the series reveals that it was promulgating opinions and theories not facts and is, therefore, not defamatory,” James Sammataro, partner with Stroock & Stroock and national head of the firm’s entertainment litigation practice group, told Variety.
But Larry Iser, a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump & Aldisert, told Variety, “In his complaint, Burke Ramsey claims that the documentary is rife with outright lies, half-truths, manufactured information, and the intentional omission and avoidance of truthful information about the murder of his sister. If he can prove that, the defendants would be liable for defamation.”
Whether or not Ramsey is a public or private figure will also be a key factor in the case. For private citizens, defamation is a much more serious issue, and Burke Ramsey’s lawyers are likely to cite his lack of media appearances until this year as evidence he is a private figure, despite his family’s infamous case.
Michael Overing, an adjunct professor at USC Annenberg whose practice has a specialty in First Amendment law, tells Variety, though, that it will be difficult to prove that Ramsey is a private figure and that his life has been affected negatively by the documentary.
“He also has to prove that his reputation has been sullied—that alone may be difficult to prove given the notoriety of the case.”
Then again, looking at how the most high-profile First Amendment case from 2016 played out, it may be easier to get a guilty verdict against a media company than experts would guess.