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Opinions expressed by Bill Cosby and his supporters about his accusers did not constitute defamation


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ftrechsel

By Frank Trechsel

     Comedian Bill Cosby succeeded in defending himself against a defamation lawsuit brought by one of his alleged sexual harassment victims, Renita Hill.  The U. S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has recently ruled Renita Hill failed to state a claim for defamation against Cosby based on statements made by him, his attorney, and his wife questioning the validity and moral character of his accusers.

     On November 20, 2014, after many alleged victims of the famous comedian came forward about sexual abuse, Renita Hill also decided to come forward with her own story.  In 1983, Cosby recruited 16 year-old Hill to co-host a children’s television program.  Cosby presented himself as Hill’s mentor and paid for her college tuition.  Hill claimed that during this time Cosby would invite Hill to his hotel room where he would give her drinks laced with drugs. These drinks would put her in a semi-conscious or unconscious state. While in this state, she claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions. In 1987 when Hill completed her second year of college she cut all ties with Cosby and stopped receiving tuition payments from him.

     After coming forward and telling her story, Hill claimed Cosby retaliated against her and the other abuse victims by making defamatory statements designed to bring into question their honesty and motivations.  She focused on three statements: (1) a November 21, 2014 statement by Cosby’s attorney; (2) a statement made by Cosby during an interview; and (3) a December 15, 2014 letter published by the Washington Post written by his wife and business manager, Camille Cosby.

 Undisclosed defamatory facts?

     The statements made by Cosby and his affiliates consisted of their opinions and, therefore, not always subject to defamation lawsuits. Statements that provide the facts upon which the opinion-holder bases his or her opinion, known as “pure” opinions, are not defamatory. 

     In Pennsylvania, however, an opinion can be defamatory if it may reasonably be understood to imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts justifying the opinion. Therefore, the court had to determine whether or not Cosby and his supporters sufficiently provided the facts upon which they based their opinions or did they imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts?

     The court began its analysis with the statement made by Cosby’s attorney, who questioned the validity of the allegations against Cosby for a number of reasons.  The lawyer drew his opinion on the following facts: (1) that the alleged acts of abuse “occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago;” (2) “it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years;” and (3) “[l]awsuits are filed against people in the public eye everyday,” and “[t]here has never been a shortage of lawyers willing to represent people with claims against rich, powerful men, so it makes no sense that not one of these new women who just came forward for the first time now ever asserted a legal claim back at the time they allege they had been sexually assaulted.”

     Although the lawyer’s statement may have implied that Hill lied, the court reasoned, since he provided the reasons that formed his opinion, the reader could draw his or her own conclusions. The lawyer adequately disclosed the factual basis for his opinion, and, therefore, did not imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts.

 The statements did not imply undisclosed facts      

     Similarly, the Court concluded Cosby’s own statement did not imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts. In his statement, Cosby characterized the accusations against him as “innuendos.”  However, he did so only to explain why he had not addressed the accusations directly and went on to invite the viewer of the publication to investigate and draw their own conclusions. 

     The court felt asking the audience to investigate and draw its own conclusions did not reach the level of defamation. The court also believed imploring the audience to investigate did not imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts about Hill or any of the other accusers.

     Camille Cosby’s statements also did not imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts about Hill. Camille Cosby’s statement attacked the media more than it insinuated anything about the sexual assault accusers.  Her statement claimed that the media had failed to properly research and “vet” the stories of the accusers.  The court found the statement mostly chastised the media and no reasonable recipient could find that the statement implied the existence of specific undisclosed facts known only to Camille Cosby.      

     The court wrote, “[a]fter all, this recipient would know that Camille Cosby was not only Cosby’s business manager. She was also his wife, and it is understandable that someone would defend his or her spouse against public accusations of wrongdoing without thereby implicating any specific facts regarding a particular accusation.”

     Hill also attempted to claim the combination of the three statements together reached the level of defamation. However, the court quickly dismissed this claim as well, concluding each statement incapable of defamatory meaning; the sum total of the statements did not rise to the level of actionable defamation. 

 

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