Can Prince's estate sue the National Enquirer for saying he had AIDS?
A publication's best defense against a lawsuit is if its story is true. Though the Enquirer story has earned lots of winces and dropped jaws, most mainstream media outlets have stayed far away from it for a variety of reasons: Questions about the story's sourcing, the whiff of tabloid sleaze, and widespread speculation that Prince died of something else — perhaps an overdose.
The short answer is that Prince's family can't do anything about the report, legally — because Prince is dead.
"A dead person, and his or her estate, has no cause of action for libel," said New York University professor Stephen D. Solomon. "You can say anything you want about the estimable George Washington. Anything, and there's nothing George can do about it."
"It is not, according to U.S. courts, legally possible to libel a dead person," added Time reporter turned Loyola Marymount Journalism Professor Kate Pickert. "Even if it were possible, a public figure, or his representatives, alleging libel would first have to prove that the information published was untrue and that the outlet knew it was untrue or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true."
Pickert says that the singer's death gives outlets like the National Enquirer more legal latitude to make statements about him. But proving libel is even difficult for living public figures. (The National Enquirer had no comment for this story.)
Is it libelous to say a living person has AIDS? HIV/AIDS groups have explained for decades that the disease is a virus, that viruses don't discriminate, and that there shouldn't be any stigma attached to transmitting a virus.
But defamation law nonetheless holds that saying someone has a "loathsome" disease is libelous. Such diseases have typically included those that can be sexually transmitted.
"Generally, if a media outlet alleges that someone has a 'loathsome disease,' it can be considered a defamatory statement," defamation lawyer Joe Tacopina told TheWrap. "If you say someone has AIDS and they don't, it's per se libel. It's a disease that is contagious, it can cause death."
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Prince's estate could try to prove it suffered a material loss because of the report, but that would be a longshot at best, he said.
"They would have to show a direct correlation between the allegation that he had AIDS and the drop in sales," said Tacopina. "That'd be almost impossible to prove."
Entertainment attorney Devin McRae agreed it would be hard for the estate to prove that the Enquirer's report impacted the estate's assets. McRae said there is always the chance that a creative attorney could find some "novel theory or use or an existing theory to raise — but it would require some intellectual heavy lifting."
"The civil justice system doesn't always provide recourse for something, that sensibly ought to have some sort of remedy," McRae added. "If the Enquirer's report turns out to be false, then sometimes the adverse publicity from that itself would be recourse. It would diminish the reputation of the Enquirer."
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