We’ve poked some fun at former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice and senate candidate Roy Moore before — both for his brutal hazing as a first-year law student (he garnered the nickname “fruit salad” from a professor after mixed-up answers to questions) and for his quixotic crusade against gay marriage in Alabama (earning repeated slap-downs from federal courts). It turns out we’re not the only ones.
Sacha Baron Cohen, disguised as fictional Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, interviewed Moore on his Showtime series “Who Is America?” and demonstrated a supposed “pedophile detector” that beeped when waved near him. Moore didn’t find it funny, and is now suing Cohen, Showtime, and parent company CBS for defamation, to the tune of $95 million.
Hints of Distress
“This false and fraudulent portrayal and mocking of Judge Moore as a sex offender,” the complaint claims, “has severely harmed Judge Moore’s reputation and caused him, Mrs. Moore, and his entire family severe emotional distress, as well as caused and will cause plaintiffs financial damage.” Moore’s wife, Kayla, is also a plaintiff in the case, and the suit accuses Cohen and the networks of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Here’s the segment, which aired July 29:
Elements of Defamation
Defamation suits, especially those brought by public figures, can be difficult to prove. In order to win a defamation claim, a plaintiff must show that:
- Someone made a statement;
- The statement was published;
- The statement caused the plaintiff injury; and
- The statement was false.
Additionally, people in the public eye, like Roy Moore, must also prove that the statement was made with “actual malice,” which only occurs when the person making the statement knew the statement was not true at the time, or had reckless disregard for whether it was true or not.
Disproving a Claim
Nailing down Cohen’s “statement” in this case could be tricky. Of course, his “pedophile detector” does beep when waved near Moore, but Cohen’s character acts incredulous. He says, “It must be malfunctioning,” asks whether Moore allowed anyone else to borrow his jacket, asserts, “It is not saying that you are a pedophile,” and even says as Moore is leaving the interview, “I’m not saying that you are a sex offender at all.”
But, of course, the implication is there. And courts will consider the context of a statement to determine whether or not is defamatory.
Moore will also need to prove the implication is untrue. “I’ve been married for 33 years,” Moore responded to the beeping. “I’ve never had an accusation of sex things.” That’s not entirely accurate. A total of nine women accused Moore of sexual misconduct during his senatorial campaign last year, four of whom claimed Moore “pursued them” when they were teenagers and he was in his early 30s. Any trial on the defamation claims could bring those accusers (and possibly more) into court to testify.
And then there is proving an injury to his reputation from the statement. Given Moore’s public perception, before and after the segment aired, that might not be easy