A federal judge dismissed defamation claims against Netflix and director Ava DuVernay brought by the proprietor of a controversial police interrogation method.
U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah ruled criticism of the Reid Technique in the dramatic series “When They See Us” is protected by the First Amendment.
Shah earlier this week granted motions to dismiss filed by the streaming giant, the director and her company, Array Alliance Inc., also finding the defendants didn’t have enough Illinois connections to be sued here under state law.
The claims were filed by John E. Reid and Associates, a Chicago-based company behind the Reid Technique, which has been taught in textbooks and elsewhere since at least 1986 and counsels law enforcement on how to strategically use confrontation during questioning of suspects.
Critics of the method contend it creates the conditions for false confessions and wrongful convictions.
Reid’s suit stems from the fourth and final episode of the series, a dramatized depiction of the Central Park jogger case in which five black teenagers were wrongly accused of a New York City rape in 1989. In the scene, two prosecutors confront a detective in a bar in 2002, telling him “[t]he Reid Technique has been universally rejected.”
Rather than being a demonstrably false claim, as Reid argued, Shah wrote in the 25-page decision that the statement is “the kind of loose, hyperbolic dialogue that is a protected part of the nation’s discourse.”
It’s also imprecise and not meant to be taken as a blanket truth, Shah wrote — “rejected by whom? And in what context?” Shah asked rhetorically.
“The statement was also made by a fictionalized character, during a fictionalized conversation, as part of series that uses actors and actresses, music, and imagined dialogue to dramatize historical events. The show sells itself as fact-based but cannot be mistaken for original footage. 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,” Shah wrote.
“The social and literary context of When They See Us and the scene in the bar — as well as the non-verifiable nature of the phrase ‘universally rejected’ and its imprecise, hyperbolic meaning — protect Netflix from liability for claiming that the Reid Technique has been universally rejected,” he added.
The miniseries debuted on Netflix in May 2019, and it follows the jogger case from 1989 until 2014, when New York City reached a settlement with the individuals wrongly accused.
Reid argued the technique has been taught to more than 200,000 people since 2002, when the character in the show supposedly claimed it was “universally rejected.” He claimed at nearly all of his recent seminars, someone has asked about the criticism in the show, and he’s been forced to spend time and resources addressing it.
He filed claims of defamation per se, defamation per quod, false light, unjust enrichment, and commercial disparagement and a claim against Netflix under Illinois’s Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act in October.
DuVernay and Array moved to dismiss based on lack of jurisdiction. Among the elements needed to establish personal jurisdiction is a showing that defendants “purposely availed” themselves of the privilege of doing business in the forum state.
Shah ruled there was nothing in Reid’s complaint suggesting the director or her company spent significant time in Illinois or seemed to purposely put in added effort here. Any connection to this state amounts to “untargeted negligence,” Shah wrote, noting DuVernay claimed she owns no property here and has visited Illinois a grand total of six times in 10 years, for reasons unrelated to this series.
The content of the series also has no special connection to Illinois, the judge added.
“The crime at its center takes place in Central Park, and the trials that follow play out in the Supreme Court of the State of New York,” Shah wrote. “Only the most attentive student of interrogation protocol would have caught the single reference to the Reid Technique and, recalling the principal place of business of John E. Reid and Associates Inc., thought, ‘Illinois.’”
Another facet of Reid’s defamation claim was by implication — that the long, coercive interrogation techniques depicted earlier in the show involving deprivation of food and restroom breaks — were part of the method he espouses.
But in an analysis that would fit in a film class, Shah wrote things are more complicated in the scene in which his technique is mentioned, which involves a detective named Michael Sheehan and a Manhattan prosecutor.
“Again, the prosecutor has a motive; he wants Sheehan to confess. Bluffing about the unreliability of Sheehan’s methods (while couching the bluff in technical terms to lend it an air of authority) might be part of a ploy to convince Sheehan the jig is up,” Shah wrote.
“When allegedly defamatory statements take place in a setting in which ‘the audience may anticipate efforts by the parties to persuade others to their positions by use of epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole,’ language that might otherwise be thought of as statements of fact ‘may well assume the character of statements of opinion,’” he added.
When the prosecutor in the show says the Reid Technique has been “universally rejected,” the detective also responds forcefully, saying “I don’t know what the f---ing Reid Technique is. Okay? I know what I was taught. I know what I was asked to do and I did it.”
Such a statement could be construed as meaning that “what Sheehan did to the young men in the first episode of the series was not the Reid Technique, and could not have been because Sheehan did not know what the Reid Technique was,” Shah wrote.
“The accusatory prosecutor thought that the Reid Technique had been used, but the detective who took the confessions did not. Reid’s defamation per se claim fails because the allegedly defamatory statements in When They See Us are both capable of innocent construction and protected by the First Amendment.”
The judge concluded by writing that the First Amendment construction that trumped Reid’s defamation claims would trump the rest of his claims as well.
The opinion was published March 23.
Jack J. Carriglio of Cozen O’Connor, represented the plaintiff in the case. He could not be reached for comment.
Natalie J. Spears of Dentons US LLP represented the defendants in the case.
A spokesperson for Netflix said in a written statement that the company is “pleased the court has found in our favor.”
The case is John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. v. Netflix, Inc., et al., No. 19 C 6781.