Timberlake, Biel settle defamation suit in Ireland; Case displays variations in defamation laws around world

While waiting in line at the grocery store, many people recognize the flood of magazines and tabloids extended down the aisle. Purported steamy love affairs, 10-day weight loss plans, and revelations of the secret lives of your favorite celebrities are screaming at you from a few feet away. The chorus echoed from many people typically sounds something like: “How are these tabloids still in business? Why don’t the celebrities sue them?”

Well, the truth is that many celebrities do sue. The success rates are mixed, though, and lawsuits are typically more successful in other countries without the robust free speech and press protections we enjoy in the United States.

Case and point: Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. They recently filed a defamation lawsuit against the magazine Heat in Ireland. In September, Heat published an article stating that Timberlake was seen flirting with other women at a Paris nightclub. It also quoted false statements to Biel. The Heat headlines included “Justin Timberlake gets flirty with another woman” and “The flirty photos that rocked Justin and Jessica’s marriage.”

Last week the parties settled. The magazine’s representative admitted that “[t]he article was based on an unfounded report regarding Justin Timberlake’s alleged behavior at a club following a performance in Paris.” In a statement, Paul Tweed, Timberlake and Biel’s attorney, said:

“[They] will not hesitate to take similar legal action if false allegations regarding the state of their marriage are repeated.”

It must be noted the differences in UK and American law relating to defamation that makes UK courts more friendly to the plaintiff (the person suing the media outlet or speaker). In a defamation lawsuit in the United States, the plaintiff must prove that the statements were substantially false, and if the plaintiff is a “public official” or “public figure,” the plaintiff must prove the statements were made with actual malice (meaning the defendant published the statement with either knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard to the statement’s truth). See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) & U.S. Const. amend. I. This is an extremely rigid standard to meet.

On the other hand, the burden of proof in the UK is on the defendant to prove that the statements were true. So in this case Heat magazine had to prove its allegations about Timberlake and Biel’s relationship were true. This strict standard makes succeeding in a defamation suit and getting a settlement much easier for plaintiffs in the UK compared to the United States. Once again, the First Amendment proves to make all the difference.

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