A federal appellate court said that the disclosure of a police informant's identity on the History channel documentary series "Gangland" is protected free speech, but that the informant still had presented "sufficient evidence" on his claim that producers reneged on agreements not to disclose who he was.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal on Monday said that the plaintiff, identified as John Doe, had made a "sufficient showing of fraud" as producers asked him to sign a release form. Such a claim, "if true, would render the release void," the appellate court said.
Gangland Prods. and A&E Television Networks, parent of History, argued that Doe knowingly signed a release that gave them the right to broadcast his identity. But Doe claims that he agreed to be interviewed for a 2010 episode of the documentary series on condition that his identity would be concealed.
The 9th Circuit noted that Doe claimed in a sworn declaration that he "has dyslexia, is illiterate, and that he told [series producer Stephanie] Kovac he has 'extreme difficulty reading.'" Doe claimed that when he was provided the alleged release, Kovac told him it was "just a receipt" for a $300 payment for the interview.
The "Gangland" episode focused on the white supremacist Public Enemy Number 1 gang. Although Doe was not a member of the gang, he was a childhood friend of Scott Miller, one of its co-founders who was allegedly murdered by other gang members.
Doe claimed that after the episode aired, he was no longer employable as an informant for law enforcement, and that he received numerous death threats.
Producers contend that Doe never requested that his identity be concealed, and that he was shown a camera monitor that showed how he would appear in the program, without his face concealed in any way.
There was a partial victory for the producers in the appellate ruling. Gangland Prods. and A&E, in their claim that a district court judge, Andrew J. Guilford, too narrowly applied California's anti-SLAPP statute, designed to prevent cases from being filed as a way of squelching free speech, when he refused to dismiss the case in 2011.
The appellate judges said that Guilford "erroneously concluded" that the producers were not engaging in protected speech, ruling that whether the disclosure of Doe's identity was legal or illegal had "no bearing" on whether the broadcast was protected by the First Amendment. The 9th Circuit also concluded that the lower court was wrong to conclude that Doe's identity was not an issue of public interest, as the interview was connected to the episode's topic of gang violence and Miller's murder.
The court also struck down Doe's claims for appropriate of likeness and negligent infliction of emotional distress, but let him pursue claims for public disclosure of private fact, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false promise and declaratory relief.
The ruling means that the case heads back to the district court, presumably for new analysis.
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