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Virginia Citizens Defense League v. Couric

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

May 31, 2017

VIRGINIA CITIZENS DEFENSE LEAGUE, DANIEL L. HAWES, and PATRICIA WEBB, Plaintiffs,
v.
KATIE COURIC, STEPHANIE SOECHTIG, ATLAS FILMS LLC, and STUDIO 3 PARTNERS, LLC, Defendants.

          OPINION

          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge.

         The 2016 film Under the Gun deals with the social issues of gun control and the proliferation of firearms in the United States. The film includes an interview with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (the "VCDL"), a gun rights advocacy organization. At one point during the interview, Under the Gun shows VCDL's members apparently stumped when an interviewer asks how to keep felons and terrorists from getting guns without background checks. In the real interview, the VCDL members responded to the question, but their responses did not actually answer the question. They either could not, or would not, say how to keep felons and others from obtaining firearms without background checks.

         The VCDL and two of its members have sued the director, producer, and distributor of the film for defamation. The defendants have moved to dismiss. Because the film is not false or defamatory, the Court grants the defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Under the Gun portrays firearms as a serious social problem and advocates gun control.[1]Each of the defendants took roles in making and distributing the movie. Stephanie Soechtig directed the film. Katie Couric interviewed the VCDL members, narrated the film, and served as an executive producer. Atlas Films LLC ("Atlas") was the production company for the film. Studio 3 Partners LLC, doing business as EPIX ("EPIX"), distributed the film.

         The Interview

         In 2015, Couric interviewed nine members of the VCDL. The VCDL "is a non-partisan, grassroots organization dedicated to advancing the rights of responsible gun owners under the Second Amendment and Virginia Constitution." (Compl. ¶ 18.) Two of the members interviewed are plaintiffs here: Patricia Webb, a licensed firearms dealer and gun store owner, and Daniel L. Hawes, an attorney who practices litigation related to firearms and personal defense.

         Before the interview, Couric asked the VCDL members to sit in silence for ten seconds to allow for calibration of the recording equipment. The cameras filmed the members during the period of silence.

         During the interview, Couric asked:

If there are no background checks how do you prevent-I know how you all are going to answer this, but I'm asking anyway-if there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from walking into say a licensed gun dealer and purchasing a gun?

         The VCDL members, including Hawes and Webb, did not answer Couric's question. Instead, they articulated their opposition to any gun control, but never said how to keep guns out of the hands of felons and terrorists. One VCDL member said that felons should have the right to own a gun after serving their time. Hawes responded by discussing existing laws related to firearms. Webb responded by saying why she opposed background checks. While they offered views on gun control, they did not answer Comic's query about how to stop the wrong people from getting guns without background checks.

         The Film

         The film opens on a dimly lit, empty circle of chairs. Text appears: "Before this film is over ... 22 people in America will be shot." People begin filing into the interview room. Text appears: "6 of them will die." Couric then thanks the seated group for the interview, identifying the group as one with "a specific point of view on this issue and some of the issues we're tackling." She then asks how many in the group are carrying guns. Everyone in the group raises their hand.

         The film then shows opening credits, with a background of historical voice and video clips related to guns. It shows headlines and footage of the shootings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. The film also plays news clips regarding the National ...


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