Another Hollywood defamation case is making headlines. This time around, Sean Penn is suing Lee Daniels over an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Who will likely win this slander showdown? Is Penn’s filing a PR tactic or a solid complaint? Let’s deconstruct with the help of our friends at Kelly Warner Law.
Celebrity Defamation Case Study Basics: Penn v. Daniels
Plaintiff: Sean Penn
Defendant: Lee Daniels
Contested Statement: In a media interview, Lee Daniels, co-creator of the television hit “Empire,” said:
“[Terrence Howard] ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of the sudden he’s some f—in’ demon. That’s a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America.”
Arguments Asserted In Penn’s Legal Filing
Excerpts from Penn’s complaint:
“[In] purporting to ‘defend’ the ongoing legal and related troubles of actor Terrence Howard … who has reportedly, and publicly, admitted to physically abusing at least one woman and reportedly been arrested approximately five times for violent acts against women — Daniels has falsely asserted and/or implied that Penn is guilty of ongoing, continuous violence against women. Nor has Penn admitted to ‘slap[ping]’ a woman or abusing others (as Howard has also reportedly admitted, reportedly asserting that he was acting in self-defense).”
“two of the greatest actors and humanitarians of our time” as part of a “misguided campaign to profit and further bolster and brand his show.”
“false and defamatory” statements have “caused Penn great anguish and emotional distress and have exposed him to pre-judgments and false judgments,”
“One of this generation’s most highly-acclaimed and greatest artists and humanitarians, Sean Penn.”
“An internationally-known film actor recognized for his humanitarian work, journalism, and advocacy for peace and human rights.”
“apparently part of a misguided campaign to profit and further bolster and brand his show Empire (on the eve of the Emmy Awards, when the statements were made).”
Does Sean Penn Have A Solid Defamation Claim Against Lee Daniels?
Will Sean Penn win his defamation claim against Lee Daniels? It’s impossible to say at this stage of the game. A lot of factors will come into play, and the outcome may very well depend on interpretations made by the deciding judge or jury.
Regardless, let’s take a look at the factors that may affect this claim.
Actual Malice: Under United States defamation law, celebrities – both local and national – are held to a different evidence standard than “private citizens.” Famous folks must prove actual malice whereas everyone else just needs to demonstrate either reckless disregard for the truth or negligence, depending on jurisdiction. Actual malice means showing that the defendant purposefully and knowingly lied in a calculated attempt to cause harm. In this case, to meet the actual malice standard, Penn would have to prove that Daniels knew that Penn hadn’t been formally charged with any domestic violence issues, but said it anyway in a pre-meditated attempt to ruin Penn’s reputation. As other media outlets have suggested, proving calculation on Daniels’ part may be too big of a defamation hurdle for Penn to leap. Daniels’ comment was off-the-cuff, and there’s a good chance he believed his statement to be true.
Harm: To win a defamation lawsuit in the United States, plaintiffs usually have to prove that the contested statement caused material harm. Did Daniels’ statement cause Penn financial harm? Did it cause the star to lose a job? Proving harm may be hard for Penn. Ask the average reader of gossip websites their opinion of Sean Penn; there’s a decent chance their answer won’t be flattering, as stories of Penn’s temper have long made headlines.
Defamation Per Se: Did Daniels accuse Penn of a crime? Though a stretch, it’s arguable. As such, Penn’s team could play the “defamation per se card.” Per se defamation is when a person or business is accused of something that is widely considered inherently defamatory. In such cases, depending on jurisdiction, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove harm. Acts of moral turpitude and criminality are examples of defamation per se in certain jurisdictions. In this case, one could argue that Daniels was accusing Penn of violence – a criminal act.
What Is The True Goal of this Lawsuit?
Several media outlets, including Fortune and the Washington Post (WAPO), are not-so-subtly questioning Penn’s motivations in filing this defamation lawsuit against Lee Daniels. Is it to save face, or is it a robust claim?
A WAPO columnist focused on the highly laudatory language used in Penn’s claim. The article begged the question: “Did Penn file an unwinnable defamation lawsuit to save face and attempt to re-steer public perception?”
Fortune’s website explained that less than half of celebrities who file defamation lawsuits in the United States actually win, because the standards for slander and libel are exceptionally high in American courts.
It’s impolitic for us to render an opinion either way, because, as defamation lawyers, we understand that there is usually more to a case than what is available online. And oftentimes, those underexposed details can make all the difference in a given case.
Time will reveal how the defamation lawsuit between Sean Penn and Lee Daniels resolves. And there’s a good chance we’ll never know the outcomes, as the two parties may very well settle, which usually happens in these types of cases.
Cover photo credit: Ammar Abd Rabbo / Flickr