Court Throws Out Defamation Suit Filed Against Ava DuVernay and Netflix Over 'When They See Us'

The suit, which was filed in 2019, is not to be confused with a separate defamation suit filed against the director and streaming platform last week.


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Ava Duvernay

On Monday, a judge dismissed a lawsuit against Ava DuVernay and Netflix over a scene from the Central Park jogger case-based miniseries When They See Us. That series was created and directed by DuVernay, and aired on that particular streaming platform in May 2019. 

The suit which was dismissed on Monday was actually filed in 2019, and is not to be confused with a separate lawsuit that was drafted against the pair by prosecutor Linda Fairstein last week

The dismissed legal dispute in question had to do with defamation. Specifically, a police training firm (John E. Reid and Associates), says that the series misrepresented their widely used "Reid technique" that's utilized for interrogations. 

Varietyreports that the method comes up during the series when a fictionalized prosecutor approaches an NYPD detective with accusations that he coerced a confession from five black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of rape and assault. 

“You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision,” says that character. “The Reid Technique has been universally rejected.”

The real-life police training firm contends that the statement inaccurately described the technique, and that it isn't true that it's been "universally rejected." 

However, in response, Judge Manish S. Shah ruled that the defendants were protected by the First Amendment, and also that "universally" was applied in a hyperbolic sense in the scene. 

"‘Universally’ is hyperbolic and the prosecutor cannot be taken literally to assert that all intelligent life in the known universe has rejected the technique — which means his statement is an imprecise, overwrought exclamation,” Shah wrote. “The statement was also made by a fictionalized character, during a fictionalized conversation… And while labeling something ‘fictitious’ will not insulate it from a defamation action… placing non-verifiable hyperbole in the mouth of a fictionalized character with an ax to grind provides a few layers of protection from civil damages for defamation.”

Deadline reports that the plaintiffs had been seeking "unspecified widespread damages and profits," and also to have the miniseries pulled from Netflix until the line (which came in the last of the show's four episodes) was either altered to their satisfaction, or removed altogether. 

Last year, in response to the suit, Netflix and DuVernay filed paperwork asking for the matter to be tossed out. They were granted that on Monday.

That now leaves another defamation suit related to the series, which was filed on March 18, 2020, to be dealt with. That was put together by ex-Manhattan Assistant D.A. Linda Fairstein after she said she was wronged by being portrayed as the racist mastermind who prosecuted the Central Park Five. 

Netflix called that second suit "frivolous" and "without merit." 

As for Monday's ruling, they said that "we're pleased the court has found in our favor." 

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