NXIVM supporter Marc Elliot is suing the producers of the docuseries, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult – Lionsgate Films Inc., Lionsgate Entertainment Inc., and Starz Entertainment LLC.
Lionsgate, et al, are calling it a SLAPP suit, asking the judge to dismiss the case and for the judge to order Elliot to pay their legal fees.
Elliot appears an estimated 19 times, for a total of 45 seconds, in the four-hour series.
He is seeking $10 million from Lionsgate.
The case is before Judge John A. Kronstadt in California.
Elliot’s attorney is Joseph Tully of Tully & Weiss of Martinez, CA. Tully also represents Keith Raniere on his appeal of his criminal conviction.
Elliot claims Lionsgate, using his likeness, through “misleading splicing of words,” and “creative film editing, voice-overs, and out-of-context statements” committed torts of:
- defamation per se
- defamation by implication
- putting him in a false light
- appropriation of his name or likeness,
- intentional infliction of emotional distress.
He said Seduced made him look like he:
- is dangerous
- has been trained to kill
- is capable of killing himself if [Raniere] told him to
- condones violence against women.
- likens him to a rapist
- a terrorist in training
- a Nazi experimenter
- a potential murderer at the direction of Raniere.
- a dangerous follower who is weaponized.
- the ultimate loyalist of the insinuated sex cult
He says this has caused him to be “subject to widespread humiliation, denigration, mental and emotional anguish, social stigma, threats, professional backlash, and occupational losses.”
Elliot says he was “never approached, interviewed, or consulted on the content included in Seduced, which featured his name, likeness, and image.”
Elliot complains about the juxtaposition of his testimonial about NXIVM trainings on “how to relate to women” with clips of Raniere discussing “primitive” “beasties” who want to “conquer a woman.”
He alleges that editing together testimonials and excerpts from NXIVM’s trainings on gender roles “imply that [Elliot] supported and encouraged sexual violence and misconduct against women.”
Elliot Shown out of Context
Elliot alleges his face was shown onscreen, followed by commentary from Steven Hassan and Rick Ross discussing “coercive” tactics to “foster obedience,” referencing ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Elliot was also shown onscreen while experts critiqued former Dr. Brandon Porter’s “fright experiments.”
Elliot alleged that a segment showing him standing in the audience of various seminars with Raniere is defamatory because he was not standing when Raniere said the provocative words spoken in the clip.
Elliot claimed that Ross’ opining on the violent actions that other cult-like groups have taken, makes it “appear as if [Raniere] is giving Plaintiff specific instructions to kill someone specifically.”
In response to Elliot’s lawsuit, Lionsgate filed a Special Motion to Strike motion, AKA an anti-SLAPP motion, to dismiss the case. SLAPP is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”
The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted to check “a disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional right of freedom of speech and petition.”
Lionsgate, represented by Jassy Vick Carolan and Meghan Fenzel, argue that nothing is defamatory because it is based on “Defendants’ [free] speech and alleged conduct in furtherance of speech in connection with matters of public interest.”
Opinions Are Protected Speech
Lionsgate’s attorneys argued that anything the experts said in Seduced was opinion, not fact. “Whether a statement implies a factual assertion or merely conveys protected opinion or hyperbole,” is the crucial test.
Here are excerpts from the motion to strike.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment limits defamation plaintiffs to complaints about verifiable facts….
The issue of whether a statement is a factual assertion or nonactionable opinion or hyperbole “is a question of law to be decided by the court.”
“The determination of whether an allegedly defamatory statement is a statement of fact or statement of opinion is a question of law.”
Here, the alleged implications are all presented as opinions – sometimes interlaced with epithets, fiery rhetoric, hyperbole and colorful commentary – about NXIVM.
Opinions, “‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ ‘vigorous epithet[s],’ ‘lusty and imaginative expression[s] of contempt,’ and language used ‘in a loose, figurative sense’ have all been accorded constitutional
protection.” Indeed, “[e]ven if they are objectively unjustified or made in bad faith, publications which are statements of opinion rather than fact cannot form the basis for a libel action.”
[I]f it is plain that the speaker is expressing a subjective view, an interpretation, a theory, conjecture, or surmise, rather than claiming to be in possession of objectively verifiable facts, the statement is not actionable.’”
Four of the five alleged implications are connected to people identified as experts on cults, and their opinions about NXIVM. “‘cult experts’ Rick Ross and Steven Hassan likening NXIVM’s “mind-control” techniques to those used by “ISIS and Al-Qaeda”, ‘cult expert,’ Dr. Janja Lalich,” referencing Nazi experimentation when discussing NXIVM’s Porter, Ross’ further reference to NXIVM’s destructive methods.
They argue that Seduced:
- does not state anything defamatory about Elliot since “they do not convey verifiable statements of fact but are instead constitutionally protected opinion and/or hyperbole”
- “nowhere does the Series state or imply that Plaintiff – unlike other NXIVM leaders – engaged in any criminal or otherwise wrongful behavior.”
- makes no defamatory statements directly or by implication about Plaintiff.
- Even if there were such implications, they would all be protected speech.
- The Series does not name or show Plaintiff during the segments about criminal conduct.
- Nowhere does the Series expressly call Plaintiff a potential murderer or rapist.
Plaintiff cannot point to a single false statement about him personally. Rather, he claims that a total of 45 seconds where he appeared in the Series were “misleading” and “insinuate[d]” Plaintiff was “equated” to negative characters and aspects of NXIVM.
Raniere, Not Elliot, Was Targeted
First, the implication Plaintiff alleges regarding his testimonial on “how to relate to women” is unreasonable…. Raniere is depicted indoors, at night, during a session. Plaintiff’s testimonial is depicted in an obviously separate setting: outside, in a formal interview, during the day.
It is unreasonable to claim that the editing implies that Plaintiff was directly referring to Raniere’s “conquer a woman” comments….
Nor is it reasonable to draw an implication that by simply depicting an individual attending a training on Raniere’s theories of man’s nature the Series is implying that the individual “supported sexual violence and misconduct against women” or “equate[s]”to being a “rapist.” ….
The Series accurately portrayed Raniere as an abuser—it made no implications about Elliot….
There is no “clear implication” that Plaintiff endorses Raniere’s comments about “sexual violence against women.” …
There is no reasonable implication that Plaintiff himself is being equated with terrorists or their actions.
Third, it is unreasonable to read an implication that the criticisms of former Dr. Porter’s “fright experiments” extended to Elliot…. Rather, they are about Raniere and Porter.
The expert opinion commentary in the Series expressing horror at the unethical experiments, drawing parallels to Nazi doctors, refers only to Porter’s “fright experiments.” The commentary does not refer to Plaintiff or his Tourette’s work as “horrific” or “unconscionable” and does not state or imply that Plaintiff knew about or supported Porter’s “fright experiments.”
Even if Raniere’s and the experts’ statements can be understood to imply qualities about Plaintiff – which Defendants dispute is reasonable or clear as a matter of law – the language itself is not to be taken literally as being provably true or false. There is no verifiable statement or implication that Plaintiff is a Nazi.
[T]he opinions offered from cult experts about ‘cult indoctrination,’ ‘weapon[izing]’ followers and Nazi experimentation are not, by clear implication, about Plaintiff….
Here, the experts’ low opinions of NXIVM and Raniere’s desires to “weaponize” his followers, as well as Raniere’s opinions of the “primitive parts” of men, are not presented as verifiable facts.
Even if they could be applied to Plaintiff – which is neither reasonable nor clear – they are still presented as constitutionally protected opinions or hyperbole critical of those who support NXIVM’s methods.
Fourth, it is unreasonable to claim that a clip showing Plaintiff standing in the audience of a Raniere seminar implies that he was “receiving orders from Raniere to kill someone and that such actions are justified” much less that Raniere is “giving Plaintiff specific instructions to kill someone specifically.”.
Viewed as a whole, it is unreasonable to allege that the segment implies that Plaintiff is receiving direct orders to kill. It is framed as a seminar on ethics, and Plaintiff is briefly seen as just one of many audience members listening to Raniere, not an individual receiving direct orders to kill.
Fifth, it is unreasonable to allege that drawing parallels between NXIVM and other cult-like organizations implied that Plaintiff himself would “commit murder or suicide.”
As Plaintiff alleges, the Series shows various experts pondering where Raniere was “really leading” NXIVM and raising concerns about the actions of past cult-like groups with leaders who demanded fierce loyalty. Plaintiff is not shown or named in this montage. The segment is sharing the viewpoints of various experts who have studied other cult-like groups—like the Branch Davidians of Waco and Heaven’s Gate—drawing parallels between Raniere’s coaching and early-stage actions those groups’ leaders.
However, it is unreasonable to read into this speculation about Raniere’s intentions an implication that Plaintiff was therefore “a potential murderer on command” who was being trained “to kill someone specifically.”
Likewise, there is no “clear implication” that Plaintiff accepted and followed Raniere’s alleged “orders” to “kill someone” or become a “potential murderer on command.”.
Marc Elliot must respond to this motion, and by law he has to show a probability of winning the case, something the judge, not the jury, will decide. If the judge decides Elliot will not get his day in court, and dismisses the case, based on anti-SLAPP, he may require Elliot to pay a penalty for bringing the case, something which Lionsgate is asking the judge to do.
The legal fees to date – and I can only estimate – are probably upwards of $100,000.