Judges Hear Cosby's Free Speech Appeal

By George Khoury, Esq. on October 13, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Renita Hill, one of the many women who came forward to allege that world famous comedian Bill Cosby drugged and raped her, appealed the dismissal of her defamation case against Cosby. Arguments were heard in the appeals court last week. Due to the statute of limitations for the alleged crime, Ms. Hill, like many others, was unable to have criminal charges pressed against Cosby. However, when Cosby, his wife and lawyers, made public statements about Ms. Hill's allegations, Ms. Hill struck back with a defamation lawsuit.

Ms. Hill's defamation lawsuit basically alleges that Cosby and his attorney made public statements falsely claiming that Ms. Hill lied about her allegations. While the statements in issue never explicitly state that Ms. Hill lied about her allegations against Cosby, the Cosby team's statements certainly imply such.

What Does a Defamation Claim Cover?

The basics of any defamation claim include someone making a statement, the statement being published, the statement causing injury (which can be an injury to one's reputation), and lastly that the statement was false. When defamatory statements are written, such as in a newspaper, a bathroom stall or on the internet, they are called libel, and when they are spoken, such as on television, at a party or on a podcast, they are called slander. Both libel and slander are types of defamation.

The publication of the statement does not need to involve mass media. Publication can involve only one other person viewing or hearing the statement. What's important though, if the publication was not of the mass variety, is that injury occurred. If you can prove that the sole viewer or hearer of the published false statement chose not to hire you because of the statement, then your claim may succeed. Suffering a resulting injury can sometimes be just as important as the statement being overheard or seen by others.

Defamation Versus the First Amendment

Interestingly in the Hill v. Cosby appeal, the judges appeared to question Hill's attorney on the subject of lawyer free speech. While it is recognized that defamatory speech is not protected by the First Amendment, the Appeals Court took the opportunity to question Ms. Hill's attorney about the distinction in this case. There were several questions asked about when a lawyer comments on a case in the media, what can be considered defamation, rather than simply an exercise of free speech.

Understandably, the judges are likely eager to provide attorneys with guidance on this issue as it is frequently a cause of strife between attorneys and the public.

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