No Defamation in Gun Group’s Documentary Portrayal

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RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – News anchor Katie Couric did nothing to defame a gun group by showing a clip from their interview where she appeared to stump them on the issues, a federal judge ruled.

The clip in question appeared in the documentary film “Under the Gun,” which debuted last year at the Sundance Film Festival.

This still is taken from a video promoting the 2016 documentary “Under the Gun,” which premiered on the cable network Epix in May 2017.

During her interview of the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, Couric asked how gun sellers could prevent felons and terrorists from buying firearms in the United States if the country did away with background checks.

Though the documentary showed that Couric was met with several awkward seconds of silence in response, the group claimed in a federal complaint that she and the other filmmakers manipulated the footage to make them look uninformed.

Daniel Hawes and Patricia Webb, two members of the group who acted as co-plaintiffs in the case, said their separate recording of the interview proves that they responded to Couric’s question without hesitation.

Filing suit in Richmond, the Virginia Citizens Defense League sought $12 million in damages from Couric, Atlas Films, Studio 3 Partners and director Stephanie Soechtig.

This still of Daniel Barden, a victim of gun-violence, is taken from the 2016 documentary “Under the Gun,” which premiered on the cable network Epix in May.

Coinciding nearly with National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 2, U.S. District Judge John Gibney dismissed the case Wednesday — finding nothing about the film false or defamatory.

“In the real interview, the VCDL members responded to the question, but their responses did not actually answer the question,” Gibney wrote. “They either could not, or would not, say how to keep felons and others from obtaining firearms without background checks.”

Soechtig’s editing of the footage simply dramatizes the “sophistry” of the group members, the 11-page opinion says.

“The plaintiff’s defamation claims fail because the interview scene is not false,” Gibney wrote.

Defamation applies only if the words “sting the plaintiff’s reputation,” the judge added.

“Although the plaintiffs here claim direct defamation, they cannot point to a directly defamatory statement pertaining to them,” the opinion states. “Rather, this case involves defamation by implication.”

As for whether the film portrayed the gun group’s members as uninformed and lacking a basis for their opposition to background checks, Gibney said these “implications do not arise from the film.”

“The film does not suggest that they do not have a basis to oppose background checks or are ignorant about gun regulations and rights,” the opinion states. “Rather, the film makes a different point about the effect of existing regulations on how to keep guns out of the wrong hands. The film does imply that the individual plaintiffs were stumped by Couric’s question.”

This still, an interview of the parents of gun-violence victim Daniel Barden, is taken from the “Under the Gun.” The 2016 documentary premiered on the cable network Epix in May 2017.

Though the ruling does not get into journalistic privilege or editorial discretion, Gibney did speak to artistic liberties.

“At worst, this [scene] shows artistically that they either cannot or will not answer the question,” Gibney wrote. “Their verbal responses during the interview showed the same thing. Either way, not having an answer to a question on a difficult and complex issue is not defamatory.”

The court also tossed allegations that Couric implied that Webb was unfit to own a gun store.

“A gun store owner can support background checks, oppose background checks, or remain indifferent to background checks,” the ruling states. “Not having an answer to a specific question about effective alternatives to background checks does not imply anything about fitness to own a gun store and to sell guns.”

The Virginia Citizens Defense League did not immediately return request for comment.

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