First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Playwright Threatened With Bogus Suit Re "Killing Fields" Actor

An article today in the Los Angeles Times reports that playwright Henry Ong is being threatened with a lawsuit by the estate of Academy award winning actor Haing S. Ngor.  The threatened suit has no merit and Ngor's estate should give it up.

Ngor, a gynecologist, survived the dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia and later won an Oscar for his role portraying a journalist in "The Killing Fields," a 1984 movie about the Khmer Rouge regime.  Ong wrote a play, "Sweet Karma," about a "Dr. Vichear Lam" that is based on Ngor's life.  Promotions for the play avoid using Ngor's photographic likeness.

In the play, "Dr. Lam" is depicted as, among other things, an adulterer who has sex with a patient.  Ong says the play is based on published accounts about Ngor and interviews with people close to Ngor.

Without providing details, a representative of Ngor's estate told the LA Times that "legal action" against Ong is "imminently pending."

Bad idea.

Dead people -- or, rather, the estates of dead people -- cannot sue for defamation.  That is well-established in the law, particularly in California.

A more likely scenario is a suit alleging a violation of Ngor's right of publicity.  Dead people -- I mean the heirs of dead people -- can sue for that in California, but the law permitting such suits expressly excludes plays. 

Plays are fully protected by the First Amendment, particularly when they recount facts.  Setting aside defamation concerns, the First Amendment also protects references to real persons in fictional stories.  For example, the California Supreme Court held that the use of Rudolph Valentino's name in a fictionalized film was protected.   The law also protects the use of real persons in works that blend fact and fiction for dramatic impact.

The show must go on for "Sweet Karma".

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