Lies in Lance Armstrong Biographies Have Shield
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - The First Amendment protects Lance Armstrong's repeated denials of doping and performance-enhancing drug use, a federal judge ruled.
PR consultant Rob Stutzman and others had hoped to represent a class of consumers who were allegedly misled by the image Armstrong presented of himself in his biographies as a "regular, hardworking, motivated, complicated, occasionally pissed-off, T-shirt wearing guy," and advocate for cancer patients.
Stutzman claimed that he and other readers believed that bestsellers "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," published by defendant Penguin Group in May 2000, and "Every Second Counts," published by defendant Random House in January 2003, were "truthful and honest works of nonfiction biography or autobiography when, in fact, defendants knew or should have known that these books were works of fiction."
Drug abuse in the cycling world came to light with the Oct. 10, 2012, report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which concluded that Armstrong used banned performance-enhancing substances starting in at least 1998 and continuing throughout his professional career.
The agency ultimately disqualified all of Armstrong's competitive results since Aug. 1, 1998, including his seven Tour de France victories, and banned him from the sport for life.
In their motion to strike Stutzman's complaint, Armstrong, Penguin Group, G.P. Putnam's Sons, Berkley Publishing Group, Random House, Broadway Books and Crown Publishing Group argued that statements in Armstrong's books are considered "conduct in furtherance of the exercise of ... free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest."
U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. agreed Tuesday, finding the content of Armstrong's bestselling books "non-commercial speech."
The contents of the books qualify as "free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest," according to the ruling.
"Here, it is without question that statements concerning Lance Armstrong 'concern a person or entity in the public eye' and/or are 'a topic of widespread, public interest,'" England wrote. "Lance Armstrong is a famous cyclist and his career is a topic of interest worldwide."
The judge also noted the direct connection between the text and Armstrong's public comments denying allegations of doping.
Stutzman had tried to block the defendants' motion under California's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law, but England noted that the statute applies only to public matters, citing the 9th Circuit's holding that "a private controversy, even between famous people, that interests the public is not enough."
"This limitation does not apply in this case, however, as the Armstrong books do not concern only the personal details of Armstrong's life - they concern his public cycling career and cheating in the Tour de France - public activities, 'which are the very things that interest people about [him],'" England wrote.
Stutzman also cannot claim that Armstrong's alleged criminal activity - smuggling or trafficking drugs - would render his statements outside of the anti-SLAPP statute's scope, the court found.
"The conduct at issue is the speech about the book and Armstrong's speech about whether he used drugs," England wrote. "Armstrong's lies about his use of drugs are simply not criminal conduct."
The First Amendment also protects defendants from the unfair competition, false advertising and other consumer-based claims. Statements denying Armstrong's illegal drug use, whether in advertisements or to the press, "are clearly not advertisements, and do not refer to a specific product," England wrote. "While it appears that plaintiffs ask the court to find that Lance Armstrong himself is a 'brand' or 'product,' the court declines to stretch the meaning of 'product' this far."
Apart from those who felt deceived by Armstrong's biographies, many others filed fraud actions after the cyclist confessed his doping habit to Oprah Winfrey in front of millions of viewers early this year.
The Sunday Times reached an undisclosed settlement with Armstrong as a result of its suit. Claims from Acceptance Insurance over bonuses it paid Armstrong and his management company, Tailwind Sports, remain pending in Travis County Court. over for his victories in the Tour de France from 1999 to 2001. Armstrong reached a settlement with SCA Promotions over similar claims.