US District Judge Sunshine S. Sykes dismissed Marc Elliot’s lawsuit against Lions Gate Films and Starz Entertainment on Tuesday “with prejudice.”
“With prejudice” means Elliot cannot refile the same claim again in that court. It also means Elliot may have to pay Lions Gate’s attorneys.
Judge Sykes instructed Lions Gate to apply for attorneys’ fees and costs by December 2 based on provisions of California’s anti-SLAPP laws.
Lions Gate and STARZ are the producers and distributors of the four-part documentary series, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult featuring former NXIVM member India Oxenberg.
Elliot appears briefly in four scenes in Seduced.
He sued for
- defamation per see
- defamation by implication,
- appropriation of name or likeness,
- false light,
- intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Elliot alleged Lions Gate “deceptively manipulated” source material to convey “false” messages about him.
Judge Sykes ruled that Seduced was an expressive and not merely commercial work and was about an issue of wide public interest, with public figures, addressing on ongoing controversy, and affects many people beyond the direct participants.
All these are pillars of First Amendment protection.
She also ruled that Elliot’s ongoing support for convict Raniere is of public interest and makes him at least a limited public figure.
Elliot’s claims arise from his portrayal in four brief scenes.
In the first scene (in Episode 1), a still image of Elliot speaking into a microphone appears briefly. There is no voice-over. On-screen text states Elliot’s name and identifies him as a “NXIVM Recruiter.”
The second scene (Episode 2), begins with footage of an unidentified event space. This image is accompanied by audio of Raniere, who makes vulgar, violent comments about women and men’s attitudes towards them. Next, the scene shifts to Elliot speaking into the camera. He is identified in the caption as a “NXIVM Proctor.”
Elliot states that “no one has ever taught us how to relate to women…this is, in my opinion, the Harvard of trying to relate to women.”
The third scene (Episode 2) includes Raniere on stage, stating that “you can understand killing when you feel it is necessary.”
The scene cuts to Elliot holding a microphone and nodding, then returns to Raniere, then moves to footage of the siege at Waco, then to footage of Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre.
The fourth scene (Episode 4) includes text that reads: “NXIVM Loyalists still practice ‘readiness’ drills. In July 2020, a group of loyalists started dancing beneath the window of Keith Raniere’s prison cell in Brooklyn.”
Alongside the text, there is a brief clip of Elliot dancing in front of MDC prison.
Elliot asserts that Seduced “through the use of edited video and audio clips, voice-overs,
written content, and statements taken out of context,” “communicated” to the audience that “Plaintiff is dangerous, has been trained to kill, is capable of killing himself if told to, and condones sexual violence against women.”
While the juxtaposition of Raniere, other images, and Elliot might lead some to conclude the things Elliot alleges, the only statements made about Elliot in any of the four
scenes is that he was a NXIVM recruiter and instructor.
These are true.
Judge Sykes ruled Elliot’s claim of defamation per se is denied.
His claim of defamation by implication, is more subjective matter.
Elliot claims Seduced suggests he was a “recruiter and member of a purported sex cult.”
Judge Sykes ruled that “A reasonable viewer would not understand the Series to suggests that Plaintiff participated in or was involved in any abuse himself. It does imply that Plaintiff was a devoted member of an organization whose leader has been implicated in a range of
serious sexual crimes, but this assertion – however unflattering – is substantially true. “
Elliot argued that Seduced suggested he “supported and encouraged violence and misconduct against women.”
This arises from Scene 2, which includes a vulgar comment, condoning men sexually “conquering” women, made by Raniere during a meeting of the NXIVM men’s group Society of Protectors.
This is followed by a testimonial of Elliot stating that “[n]o one has ever taught us how to relate to women, nowhere, in all the education of my whole life” and extolling JNESS as the “Harvard of trying to relate to women.”
Elliot alleges “a viewer would reasonably assume that Plaintiff’s glowing review [of JNESS] referred to Raniere’s statement [at SOP]” and, therefore, that Elliot “supported and encouraged” the kind of sexual violence Raniere had espoused.
The judge determined that “The two scenes Plaintiff juxtaposes are part of a broader exploration of Raniere’s attitudes towards women. This segment incorporates Raniere’s comments, and NXIVM members’ reactions to them, in a variety of different settings. A reasonable viewer might interpret Scene 2 to suggest Plaintiff agreed with Raniere’s teachings generally, but not that Plaintiff’s testimonial was a direct endorsement of the message that preceded it.”
Elliot argues that Seduced suggests that he, as a member of NXIVM, has been “weaponized” like a follower of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
This arises from Scene 3, in which ‘cult experts’ draw parallels between NXIVM and ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the People’s Temple (Jonestown), and Branch Davidians (t Waco).
The judge wrote, “The ‘cult experts’ featured in the Series refer to only broad similarities between NXIVM and the other organizations named, and largely suggest that NXIVM might have
escalated in analogous ways had it not been disbanded. But even assuming these segments carry the implication Plaintiff identifies, such an implication cannot be defamatory because it does not
constitute an assertion of fact.”
It is opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment.
“An assertion that someone has been ‘weaponized’ cannot be proven true or false. And in the context of the series, any comparisons between NXIVM and violent terrorist organizations are readily understood as speculative and exaggerated,” Judge Sykes wrote.
Lastly Elliot argues that Seduced suggests he has “been trained to kill and is capable of killing himself or others if so instructed.”
This arises, he says, in Scene 3.
Judge Sykes wrote, Elliot’s “appearance in this segment is so brief that it seems unlikely that a viewer would understand Defendants to be conveying any message about Plaintiff at all.”
She wrote, “The Court has reviewed the Series in its entirety and finds that it conveys no potentially defamatory statements or implications about Plaintiff.”
Elliot’s next claim is for common law misappropriation of his identity, name or likeness to Lions Gate advantage without his consent causing him injury.
The judge dismissed this with, “as California’s courts have held, even private individuals cannot state a claim for misappropriation for their portrayal in a publication concerning a public matter.”
As to Elliot’s claims of “False Light” and “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress” they went into oblivion when the defamation claims died.
The judge ruled “all causes of action alleged are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.”
His lawsuit is done.