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Foretich v. Capital Cities/ABC, Inc.

37 F.3d 1541 (1994)

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Foretich v. Capital Cities/ABC, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

37 F.3d 1541 (1994)

Facts

American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC) (defendant) aired a docudrama based on the real-life custody battle over Hilary Foretich. Hilary’s parents’ dispute over her custody drew public attention because her mother, Elizabeth Morgan, was incarcerated for contempt of court after refusing to disclose Hilary’s location. Morgan accused Hilary’s father of abusing Hilary. Hilary’s grandparents, Vincent and Doris Foretich (plaintiffs), came to their son’s defense. They spoke to reporters, appeared on television, and gave press conferences to defend their son’s innocence. The president and Congress got involved to secure Morgan’s release from prison by passing federal legislation limiting the ability of courts to impose contempt in child-custody cases. During one scene in ABC’s docudrama, Elizabeth is shown playing with her grandparents, then cuts to Dr. Morgan, who says, “[Elizabeth’s] being kind to her abusers so she won’t be hurt again.” The Foretiches sued ABC for defamation, claiming that by using the word “abusers,” ABC had implied that they, too, were accused of abusing Hilary. The parties did not dispute that the show’s use of the plural was inadvertent. At trial, ABC argued that the Foretiches were limited-purpose public figures, requiring that ABC have acted with actual malice, not accidentally, to be liable for defamation. The Foretiches argued that they were not limited-purpose public figures, having only been drawn into the public eye in the reasonable defense of their son’s reputation. A jury found in favor of the Foretiches. ABC appealed.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Murnaghan, J.)

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