Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Headmistress Lawsuit Against Winfrey; Defamation

I read this article last week and was glad it came up in class since it deals directly with defamation.

Oprah Winfrey is involved in a defamation lawsuit with one of her headmistresses at her girls school in South Africa, Nomvuyo Mzamane, who said that Winfrey defamed her when she stated to the press that she was “performing poorly” at her [Winfrey’s] South African school. The remarks were reflected on how Mzamane supposedly ignored the students sex abuse complaints. Mzamane claims Winfrey defamed her back in 2007 when the sex-abuse scandal started. Mzamane had a difficult time finding a job after Winfrey said she “lost confidence” in Mzamane and was “cleaning house from top to bottom”.

Winfrey and Mzamane decided to settle differences one on one, without lawyers present. Perhaps this was done to avoid widespread media attention that could have lost Winfrey a lot of her fans. U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno did not dismiss the lawsuit though and says Mzamane had enough evidence to make her defamation case go to trial.

Winfrey defended herself by stating that Mzamane neglected the upkeep and safety for the girls at the school, after being warned about her lacking performance as headmistress of the school. Winfrey said she was just expressing her opinions based on what she knew about the schools ongoings. Mzamane said she did not know about dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo’s sexual abuse towards the six students at the school.

Mzamane wouldn’t have to prove that the defamation was “of and concerning her” since Winfrey stated her name and title in her comments to the press. She would have to prove that Winfrey’s statements were false and since she ejected herself into the public scene by bringing the lawsuit, she would fall under limited public figure. Winfrey, treated as a public figure, made these statements to the press/public, and the court judge ruled it as “potentially defamatory as they ascribed ‘conduct which would render Mzamane unfit for her profession as an educator’.”

Were Winfrey’s comments an act of reckless disregard for the truth (malice)? Arguments could be made that Winfrey comments can be backed up with the prior knowledge of Mzamane’s bad performance as an educator/head mistress. For example, in the article, Winfrey had planned to hire over 150 nurses to be dorm matrons for the students but Mzamane employed only eight females from an “unqualified” company.


(Amy Fuhrmeister)

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