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Leaving Neverland Leads to Lawsuit: Free Speech or Defamation?

— September 26, 2019

Will the Leaving Neverland case make it to the Supreme Court? Time will tell. 

Leaving Neverland documents Michael Jackson’s alleged sex crimes against minors. Is the film free speech or defamation? Courts will decide.

In March, HBO released a hard-hitting documentary called Leaving Neverland.  In it, Wade Robson and James Safechuck both share their stories about their relationship with the late pop-star Michael Jackson.

Both men recount being sexually exploited at the ages of only seven and ten.  During the time, Michael Jackson was at the height of his career. Despite his public persona, he was allegedly abusing these two boys for years. The explosive details shocked the public and outraged his fans.

Michael Jackson’s estate was furious over the documentary’s content. Even before the film’s official release, Jackson’s estate initiated a lawsuit to compel HBO into arbitration.  Here’s what the lawsuit argues:

  • Breach of contract: HBO and Jackson reportedly had a contract that included a non-disparagement clause
  • HBO refuses to arbitrate
  • The contract dated back to 1992, but Jackson passed away in 2009
  • The estate claims the contract has no expiration date

The lawsuit, filed in February, didn’t stop HBO from publicly releasing the two-part documentary in March. Once the film became public, the estate immediately lambasted the two men as “admitted liars” and called the film a “tabloid character assassination.”

It’s true that other media outlets have backed up Jackson’s estate and called the whole film “one-sided.”  The documentary, many argue, fails to point out giant holes in the victim’s stories, and it leaves out a lot of the truth while telling the tale. Robson, for example, testified on behalf of Jackson during a 2005 trail.  He

Statue of Lady Justice; image by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird, via
Statue of Lady Justice; image by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird, via

adamantly argued that the pop star had never abused him.  The film also leaves out the fact that Robson already attempted to get money from the Jackson estate after his passing.

HBO doesn’t appear to be fazed by the upcoming litigation.  U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu made the first ruling in the case.  He agreed with HBO and denied the Jackson Estate’s motion to move the case to arbitration.  This move would have made negotiations more private.  HBO also had another major win when the case was brought out of California State Court and into federal court.

In August, HBO filed a motion to dismiss the claim.  Here’s what HBO mentioned in their argument to the court:

  • The 1992 contract is both inapplicable and expired
  • Enforcing the estate’s claims would be in violation of HBO’s First Amendment rights

The pending court date for this case is set for September 19th.  Michael Jackson’s estate is seeking $100 million in compensation, while HBO hopes to see the entire case get dismissed.

This complex lawsuit isn’t the only one that’s come about after Leaving Neverland was released. The two men featured in the film, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, have also been slapped with personal lawsuits.  According to three Michael Jackson fan clubs in London, the two men “unfairly harmed” the reputation of Michael Jackson.  Now, they want one euro each to symbolize their support for the late star.

How will these lawsuits turn out, and will the Leaving Neverland case make it to the Supreme Court? Time will tell. 


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