(CN) – Oprah Winfrey must stand trial in a case accusing the talk-show host of defaming the former headmistress at a girls’ school in South Africa, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled.
In 2008, Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane, then headmistress at Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, sued Winfrey for allegedly making defamatory statements about Mzamane amid allegations in late 2007 about sexual abuse at the school. A dorm matron at the school was accused of sexually abusing students.
U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled that there was enough evidence for the case to go to trial, rejecting the efforts of Winfrey’s lawyers to get the case dismissed.
The judge dismissed Mzamane’s claims against Winfrey for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but ruled that the claims for defamation and false light can proceed. Winfrey’s statements might have “defamatory meaning,” the court ruled, but left it up to a jury to decide.
Winfrey made the allegedly defamatory statements at an October 2007 meeting with girls’ parents and at a November 2007 press conference after rumors of alleged sexual abuse at the school emerged.
Winfrey allegedly said, referring to Mzamane, “I don’t know what she knows, or knew, or didn’t know, but that I have lost confidence in her ability to run this school. And therefore, she will not be returning to this school.”
According to the lawsuit, Winfrey also stated: “I spoke to [Mzamane] the other day and I told her that I didn’t think that it would be wise for her to continue at the school. I said … [h]ow is it that these dorm parents were given such power and authority over the girls? With no checks and balances? … And she said you don’t understand. There were checks and balances. And I don’t see where they were.”
Winfrey then added, “I’m going to find a new head of the academy for the school. I’m going to involve the parents, and involve the girls themselves in creating the discipline process because as I’ve said to them: dorm parents are gone, [Mzamane] is gone,” the former headmistress claimed.
Winfrey not only mentioned Mzamane by name, Judge Robreno ruled, but also alluded to her when Winfrey blamed the school’s “leadership” for lax rules for dorm parents.
“Here, the term ‘leadership’ relates to a readily identifiable group of individuals at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, of which plaintiff would be a member,” Robreno wrote.
“[T]he court concludes that certain statements from the October meeting and the November press conference … are capable of defamatory meaning and ‘of and concerning’ plaintiff under Pennsylvania law. The court further finds that plaintiff qualifies as a limited public figure under the First Amendment, but that, if believed by the jury, plaintiff has pointed to sufficient evidence of record demonstrating that Winfrey acted with actual malice to satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard,” Robreno added.
Oprah donated $40 million to the Johannesburg boarding school and recruited Mzamane from Philadelphia to serve as its headmistress. In 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened with more than 150 students hand-picked by Winfrey. There are currently 300 students at the school ranging from grades 7 to 10, and the school plans to add grades 11 and 12 next year.
The trial is scheduled to begin on March 29 in Philadelphia.