Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

District Court Grants National Geographic's Motion to Dismiss in Defamation Case

Kevin Nanji, convicted along with his wife of holding a young woman in involuntary servitude in violation of 18  U.S.C. sec. 1584 among other crimes, brought a civil action against National Geographic alleging that in the course of its feature article "21st Century Slaves" published September 2003, it defamed him in a "sidebar" story when it stated among things that he was convicted of raping the young woman. National Geographic filed a motion to dismiss, "or in the alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment." Examining the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court stated that "...Nanji appears to allege that National Geographic's September 2003 edition published defamatory false statements. In particular, Nanji objects to National Geographic's printed statement of "raping [the victim]" on the basis that "this allegation is false, pernicious and damaging inasmuch as [Nanji and Satia] had not been convicted for rape." Nanji's allegation fails to state a claim of defamation because the gist of National Geographic's published statement is substantially true. In determining whether allegedly false statements are substantially accurate, a court must consider the statements in their entirety...Had the Sidebar expressly stated that Nanji was convicted of raping his victim, then Nanji would have successfully stated a claim. However, the plain language of the Sidebar does not state that Nanji was convicted of rape. Instead, the Sidebar suggests that Nanji was sentenced to nine years incarceration for, among other things, "raping her." Indeed, the first sentence of the Sidebar uses the language of sentences imposed on persons convicted of as traffickers, which would imply to a reasonable observer of the Sidebar that Nanji was convicted of a trafficking offense and not of rape. Therefore, the plain text appears to shed light on the meaning of the term "raping," as used in this context...[T]he Sidebar article clearly conveys the message that "rape was merely a fact of the case rather than the underlying conviction. This Court's textual interpretation is supported by public records."

The court pointed out that National Geographic relied on Department of Justice press releases as well as public records in writing its story, and that "evidence at the criminal trial showed that Nanji `sexually abused' the victim.'" Further, even if the magazine had made an error as to the the exact nature of the type of crime involved, "[I]t is worth noting that a long line of cases holds that `technical errors in legal nomenclature in reports on matters involving violation of the law are of no legal consequence.'"

National Geographic also asserted a defense based on the fair report privilege. "Under Maryland law, earlier cases suggested that the fair report privilege `operated only when the report is fair, accurate, and made without malice.'...The modern view, however, discards the search for malice. Therefore, under the modern view of Maryland law, a publication falls within the fair report privilege if the defendant demonstrates that the publication is a substantially fair and accurate report. As applied here, this Court finds that National Geographic's published Sidebar statement was fair and accurate. As previously mentioned, National Geographic's reporting was consistent with judicial findings and statements concerning Nanji's conduct. Furthermore, National Geographic's reporting of the information contained in these government documents was fair and accurate....Accordingly, National Geographic is entitled to the fair report privilege, and Nanji's defamation claims are therefore dismissed. For the aforementioned reasons, this Court GRANTS National Geographic's motion to Dismiss Nanji's complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. An Order consistent with this Opinion will follow."

Read the opinion here. Read the September 2003 National Geographic feature article here.

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