Netflix Dealt a Big Legal Loss in Defamation Case

Netflix may be in legal trouble over its 2019 series When They See Us by filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The show is a dramatization of the Central Park Five case, where five Black men were falsely accused of sexual assault and prosecuted by attorney Linda Fairstein — played by Felicity Huffman. On Monday, a judge ruled that the real-life Fairstein can sue Netflix for defamation, despite the studio's insistence that the show is protected by the First Amendment, according to a report by Variety.

Fairstein has been trying to sue Netflix, DuVarney and co-writer Attica Locke since March of 2020, alleging that her portrayal in the series was unfair and has negatively impacted her life and career. Netflix has argued that the writing and performance were protected under the First Amendment, which often leads to a case being thrown out entirely before it can begin. That will not be the case here, U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel has reportedly decided. Although he dismissed some of Fairstein's allegations, he allowed her to move forward with the lawsuit over five particular scenes.

felicity huffman Boston Globe
(Photo: Getty / Boston Globe)

"The average viewer could conclude that these scenes have a basis in fact and do not merely reflect the creators' opinions about controversial historical events," Castel wrote in his decision. Fairstein did not comment directly, but her attorney Andrew Miltenberg issued a statement praising Castel's ruling.

"We are glad that Ms. Fairstein now has the opportunity to pursue her claims with respect to five critical scenes in the series that falsely depict Ms. Fairstein engaging in coercive and discriminatory conduct in order to build a case against innocent young men of color," it read.

As for Netflix, the company issued a statement reading: "We're thankful for Judge Castel's thoughtful assessment of the issues. We'll continue to vigorously defend When They See Us and the incredible team behind the series, and we're confident that we'll prevail against Ms. Fairstein's few remaining claims."

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Previously, Fairstein has complained that the Netflix original series portrays her as a "racist, unethical villain" with no real documentation to back that characterization up. Netflix has acknowledged that some "dramatic license" was used in the creation of her character, but defended that as common practice within the industry.

When They See Us has received generally positive reviews and has been lauded for its depiction of a previously little-known case of racial discrimination. The show won numerous awards in the season after its release, including 11 Emmy nominations and 1 win. When They See Us is streaming now on Netflix.