PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit offered little hope Friday to a woman who wants to sue Bill Cosby for casting doubt on her allegations of being sexually assaulted by the comedian.
Attorneys must be able to make some statement in defense of their clients "without getting in trouble with the defamation law," said Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Cowen.
Friday morning's hearing at the federal appeals court in Philadelphia concerned whether Cosby, his wife and his attorney, Martin Singer, crossed the libel line in 2014 when denying assault allegations raised that year by Renita Hill.
That year the former child actress had joined a chorus of dozens of women who accused the now elderly Cosby of drugging and raping them years earlier.
The criminal statute of limitations has kept courts from resolving the merits of most of these women's claims, but Hill's All but one accuser missed the statute of limitations to hold Cosby criminally liable, but Hill filed suit for defamation. She is appealing now to the Third Circuit after a federal judge dismissed her case in Pittsburgh.
Hill's attorney George Kontos faced pressure throughout the roughly 40-minute hearing to clarify what would be considered acceptable speech by a lawyer, if in fact Singer's statements did cross the line into libel.
U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz told Kontos that "a lawyer can speak in colorful language ... and that alone is certainly not enough [to prove defamation],"
Cowen agreed. "There's a real freedom-of-speech component here."
Angela Agrusa, an attorney who joined the embattled Cosby's legal team in July, invoked the freedom of speech as well.
She argued that Singer, who no longer represents Cosby, was "doing exactly what a lawyer would be expected to do" in responding to unproven accusations of assault.
Hill made "inflammatory, provocative statements" about Cosby, Agrusa contended.
The comments "invited a response," and it "should not have come as a surprise to her" when Team Cosby provided one, she added.
Cowen did note that a lawyer can overstep the duties of his job and commit libel while defending his client to the press, but then wondered aloud whether that was what happened in this case.
Aside from attorney Singer's statement about Hill, Cosby had said in a 2014 interview about the woman that "people should fact-check" rape accusations against him. The comedian's wife, Camille Cosby, meanwhile scolded the media for not properly "vetting" the stories.
Agrusa told the court that such statements were more of an attack on the collective ethics of the media than on Hill.
She said Cosby had just as much right to defend himself against the "firestorm of daily accusations" against him as his alleged victims had right to make them.
"Freedom of speech is not a one-way street," she said.
Hill told the press in November 2014 that Cosby had drugged and raped her in the late 1980s. She had met the actor several years earlier when she was just 15 and starring in one of his television shows.
Her claims prompted Singer to release a statement that said: "It makes no sense that not one of these new women who just came forward for the first time ever asserted a legal claim back at the time they allege that they had been sexually assaulted."
Kontos contended that Singer's statements carried "more credence and more weight" because he was a laywer, and were thus more likely to be taken as fact by the public.
Under Pennsylvania law, only statements of fact can be viewed as libel. Opinionated claims are protected.
Agrusa overall seemed to face less cross-examination than her opponent did from the panel, which also included Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Roth. Most of the judges' interjections during her argument were requests for detail or clarification rather than counterpoints.
The judges concluded proceedings by thanking both parties and saying they would take each set of arguments into consideration.
Neither Cosby nor Hill themselves appeared at the hearing.
Cosby, 79, has been making regular appearances, however, at the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Prosecutors there narrowly hurdled the statute limitations to charge Cosby with the 2004 sexual assault of Andrea Constand.
Earlier this week, a federal judge in Philadelphia barred Cosby from sending one of his attorneys to an upcoming deposition Constand faces.
The Philadelphia federal case concerns Constand's defamation case against Bruce Castor, a former Montgomery County DA who refused to prosecute Cosby on her behalf when she first came forward.
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