Katie Couric, 'Under the Gun' director face $13M defamation lawsuit

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Can silence in a certain context be held up as a defamatory statement?

The Virginia Citizens Defense League is hoping the answer is affirmative in a $13 million lawsuit against Katie Couric, Stephanie Soechtig and Epix over the documentary film Under the Gun.

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In the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Couric asks, "If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?"

Under the Gun portrays VCDL members Daniel Hawes and Patricia Webb in about nine seconds of silence in response to Couric's question, but according to the plaintiffs, they actually provided an answer.

"The manipulated footage informed viewers that the VCDL members had been stumped and had no basis for their position on background checks," states the complaint filed in Virginia federal court.

Read the full complaint

The VCDL asserts that Soechtig, the film's director, operated with an "agenda" and that "although the Defendants knew that their intentional edits were misleading and misrepresented Couric's exchange with the VCDL, they refused to remove the manipulated footage or to present the footage of what had actually taken place."

The VCDL will have to convince a judge that a non-statement is in fact a statement capable of being proven true or . The plaintiff also will likely have to hurdle past a challenge that the First Amendment gives filmmakers editing leeway — even for the allegedly misleading. (The complaint, among other things, asserts that the defendants revealed actual malice by using "manipulative lighting techniques" to cast shadows on VCDL members' faces.) And even if the VCDL accomplishes this, the group will have to show how their reputations were tarnished.

SEE MORE: Gun rights activists across the U.S.

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Gun rights activists across the U.S.
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Gun rights activists across the U.S.
FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2015 file photo, a demonstrator helps hold a large "Come and Take It" banner at a rally in support of open carry gun laws at the Capitol, in Austin, Texas. Texas, the second-most populous state, is joining 44 other states in allowing at least some firearm owners to carry handguns openly in public places. Under the Texas law, guns can be carried by those with licenses and only in holsters. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2015 file photo, Scott Smith, a supporter of open carry gun laws, wears a pistol as he prepares for a rally in support of open carry gun laws at the Capitol, in Austin, Texas. Texas the second-most populous state, is joining 44 other states in allowing at least some firearm owners to carry handguns openly in public places. Under the Texas law, guns can be carried by those with licenses and only in holsters. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
DES MOINES, IA - JUNE 14: Gun rights advocates demonstrate outside the Elwell Family food Center at the Iowa State Fairgrounds where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected for a campaign event on June 14, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Trystan Olson, 4, of Spokane, Wash., holds a toy gun as he leans into the barrel of the rifle of his father, Erik Olson, during a rally by gun-rights advocates at the state capitol Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. Approximately 50 demonstrators, including a half-dozen small children, protested rules that prohibit openly carrying guns into the House and Senate viewing galleries. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Protesters pledge allegiance during a rally by gun-rights advocates to protest a new expanded gun background check law in Washington state Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. Saturday's protest was called the "I Will Not Comply" rally, and those attending said they will openly exchange firearms in opposition to the state's new voter-approved universal background check law, Initiative 594. The law, which took effect on Dec. 4, requires background checks on all sales and transfers, including private transactions and many loans and gifts. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Demonstrators with rifles slung across their backs attend a rally by gun-rights advocates to protest a new expanded gun background check law in Washington state Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. Saturday's protest was called the "I Will Not Comply" rally, and those attending said they will openly exchange firearms in opposition to the state's new voter-approved universal background check law, Initiative 594. The law, which took effect on Dec. 4, requires background checks on all sales and transfers, including private transactions and many loans and gifts. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
Rob Petersen, of Federal Way, Wash., holds a sign during a rally by gun-rights advocates to protest a new expanded gun background check law in Washington state Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. Saturday's protest was called the "I Will Not Comply" rally, and those attending said they will openly exchange firearms in opposition to the state's new voter-approved universal background check law, Initiative 594. The law, which took effect on Dec. 4, requires background checks on all sales and transfers, including private transactions and many loans and gifts. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 13: Gun rights activist Mike Vanderboegh speaks during an 'I Will Not Comply' rally at the State Capitol on December 13, 2014 in Olympia, Washington. Gun rights activists protested Washington State's voter-passed initiative that requires background checks for all guns sales and exchanges. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
MYRTLE BEACH, SC - JANUARY 18: A gun rights advocate shows off a civil war rifle during a break at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on January 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A variety of conservative presidential hopefuls spoke at the gathering on the second day of a three day event. (Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
Marie McFadden holds her daughter, Faith, 6, as she prays with armed demonstrators as the group concludes a gun-rights rally at the state capitol Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. Approximately 50 demonstrators, including a half-dozen small children, protested rules that prohibit openly carrying guns into the House and Senate viewing galleries. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 13: A pair of gun rights activists listen to a speaker during an 'I Will Not Comply' rally at the State Capitol on December 13, 2014 in Olympia, Washington. Gun rights activists protested Washington State's voter-passed initiative that requires background checks for all guns sales and exchanges. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 13: Mike Ladines of Covington, Washington holds a sign while listening to a speaker during an 'I Will Not Comply' rally at the State Capitol on December 13, 2014 in Olympia, Washington. Gun rights activists protested Washington State's voter-passed initiative that requires background checks for all guns sales and exchanges. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, gun rights advocates carry rifles while protesting outside the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas. Although Texas has more than 800,000 concealed handgun license holders, it is one of only six states that don’t allow open carry, a ban that dates almost to the Civil War. But open carry looked primed to pass this year with strong support from Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans who have dominated state politics for two decades. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Demonstrators look on during a rally by gun-rights advocates at the state capitol Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. Approximately 50 demonstrators, including a half-dozen small children, protested rules that prohibit openly carrying guns into the House and Senate viewing galleries. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A Colt M4 gun and a button that reads "I Vote - Proud Washington Gun Owner," are displayed by Mark Ramirez, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., as he takes part in a gun-rights rally, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., in opposition to the state's Initiative 594, which requires - with only a few exceptions - background checks on all gun sales and transfers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Gun owners display their weapons on the steps of the Legislative Building during a gun-rights rally, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The protestors were demonstrating against the state's Initiative 594, which requires - with only a few exceptions - background checks on all gun sales and transfers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Protestors, including Mark Ramirez, center, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., wearing his Colt M4 gun, take part in a gun-rights rally, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash, in opposition to the state's Initiative 594, which requires - with only a few exceptions - background checks on all gun sales and transfers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Matt Mulder, left, holds an AR-15 rifle as he has his photo taken while Mary Hath Spokane, center, gives info to Steel Brooks after having her picture taken during a rally by gun-rights advocates to protest a new expanded gun background check law in Washington state Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. Saturday's protest was called the "I Will Not Comply" rally, and those attending said they will openly exchange firearms in opposition to the state's new voter-approved universal background check law, Initiative 594. The law, which took effect on Dec. 4, requires background checks on all sales and transfers, including private transactions and many loans and gifts. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Members of Texas law enforcement wait for a news conference to begin Wednesday, May 27, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Law enforcement groups from across Texas are demanding Gov. Greg Abbott veto a handgun open carry bill if they can't strip out a restriction on police powers to question people carrying weapons.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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On the latter point, the lawsuit states, "The fictional exchange is defamatory because it holds the Plaintiffs up as objects of ridicule by ly representing that, as experts in their respective pro-Second Amendment trades, they had no basis for their opposition to universal background checks."

"It is also defamatory per se as to each of the three Plaintiffs," continues the complaint. "First, the exchange prejudices the Virginia Citizens Defense League in its trade as a pro-Second Amendment advocacy organization. It conveys that the organization is unfit to — and failed to — perform its mission: to defend people's right to defend themselves. Second, the fictional exchange prejudices Webb in her trade as a licensed firearms dealer by ly conveying that she lacks knowledge regarding background checks — a requirement for every gun sale at her store. Third, it prejudices Hawes in his profession as an attorney who practices litigation involving firearms and personal defense by conveying that he lacks the legal expertise and oral advocacy skills required to perform his duties."

Back in May, the filmmakers responded to the controversy over how the film was edited.

"There are a wide range of views expressed in the film," Soechtig said in a statement at the time. "My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans' opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way."

Couric added that she supported Soechtig's statement and said she was "very proud of the film."

Read more: 'Under the Gun': Sundance Review


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