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.

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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)
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)
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)
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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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