Netflix and Ava DuVernay Emerge Victorious in 'When They See Us' Defamation Suit - Black Enterprise

Netflix and Ava DuVernay Emerge Victorious in ‘When They See Us’ Defamation Suit

Ava DuVernay Netflix
When They See Us (Image: Netflix/YouTube)

Netflix and Ava DuVernay have defeated a defamation lawsuit over the limited documentary series When They See Us, which was focused on the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five.

John E. Reid and Associates Inc., a police interrogation training and consulting firm, filed a lawsuit against the streaming giant, filmmaker, and her distribution company, Array, over a line in the script of When They See Us.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, in the final episode of the series, a discussion ensues between Manhattan Assistant D.A. Nancy Ryan and a New York City detective who was involved in eliciting the confessions of the Central Park Five. During this conversation, Ryan’s partner says, “You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid Technique has been universally rejected. That’s truth to you.”

The lawsuit, however, argues that the Reid Technique was mischaracterized.

“The program falsely represents that squeezing and coercing statements from juvenile subjects after long hours of questioning without food, bathroom breaks, or parental supervision is synonymous with the Reid Technique,” reads the lawsuit filed.

The company developed the Reid Technique in the late 1940s, and it has continued to offer training materials and courses to law enforcement since then. As stated on the company’s website, “Our specialized interrogation training seminars are designed for law enforcement and government investigators, corporate security, and loss prevention professionals.” It is supposedly the most widely used interrogation method by police agencies worldwide. Critics have alleged that its approach can result in false confessions.

U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah dismissed the complaint as the series is protected by the First Amendment, also because DuVernay doesn’t have the requisite contact with the state of Illinois for him to establish personal jurisdiction. 

“To ensure that public debate does not suffer for lack of ‘imaginative expression’ and ‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ the First Amendment protects from defamation liability any statement that ‘cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts,'” writes Shah. “When the prosecutor tells Sheehan that the Reid Technique has been ‘universally rejected,’ he is using the kind of loose, hyperbolic rhetoric that is a protected part of the nation’s discourse. That’s true whether one looks closely at the words themselves or more broadly at the context in which they are delivered. … ‘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 also indicated that the “statement was also made by a fictionalized character, during a fictionalized conversation” and When They See Us “sells itself as fact-based but cannot be mistaken for original footage.”

Shah has also found that the First Amendment protections defeat Reid’s remaining claims for false light, unjust enrichment, commercial disparagement, and violations of the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act.