Legal Lessons from Hit Podcast, S-Town – Part 1: Defamation

April 12, 2017

This is Part 1 of a series of posts analyzing the legal issues in the hit podcast S-Town, produced by the creators of Serial and This American Life. For more background, check out the introduction to the series. Although the events in S-Town occur in Alabama, for the purposes of this series, the legal analysis will be based on general principles of law and Pennsylvania law, since we’re Pennsylvania lawyers.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t listened to the series yet and want to avoid spoilers, proceed beyond this point with caution.

Chapters 1 and 2 of S-Town focus on what brought narrator/reporter Brian Reed to rural Alabama: John B. McLemore contacts Reed with a rumor that there may have been a murder committed by the son of a wealthy, well-connected business man in town. The son’s name is Kabrahm. The rumor mill is in high gear, and there are reports of a cover-up by local police and that Kabrahm is a brazen alleged killer who is said to be bragging about killing another man in a fight.

John goes into great detail about the rumors that he’s heard, and by talking publicly about the accusations, would Kabrahm have any legal recourse against John?

While this issue is not explored by the podcast, it provides an interesting case study for the law of defamation. Defamation is defined as the action of damaging the good reputation of someone, and includes libel and slander. Libel is when the action is in writing or another print medium, and slander is when the damaging action is verbal. People often get libel and slander confused – a simple device that I used in law school to keep them straight is that slander is spoken.

While the law of individual states may differ, in Pennsylvania, in order to be successful in an action for defamation, the defamed individual must prove that there was a defamatory communication published to one or more recipients that caused harm to their reputation. Many states recognize that certain types of statements are naturally harmful, which is known as defamation per se. In defamation per se cases, the defamed individual does not need to prove damage to their reputation.

Further, the communication must be false and that the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the communication. Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations of one year for defamation claims, which means you must start a lawsuit within a year of the defamatory statement.

The person accused of making the defamatory statement can make several defenses to a claim for defamation, including that the defamatory communication is actually true, that there was a privilege (such as the attorney-client privilege or another applicable privilege) that could be asserted, or that the character of communication was of public concern. Pennsylvania makes a distinction in defamation law between the rights of public and private individuals.

So let’s take a look at the S-Town example. John’s statements about Kabrahm were made publicly to a reporter. If John’s statement about Kabrahm is demonstrably false, then Kabrahm must show that it caused damage to his reputation or that it constitutes defamation per se. Damages are often the most difficult issue to prove. However, one of the hallmark examples of defamation per se is a specific allegation of criminal activity, therefore in this case, Kabrahm would likely have a claim for defamation.

If Kabrahm was successful, it would then be up to John to establish an affirmative defense against the defamation claim. The most likely defense in this case would be that the allegations were true, however, as you know after listening through Chapter 2, Brian Reed reports that the story has bits of truth, but ultimately, it does not appear as though there was a murder or a cover-up.

Stay tuned for more posts analyzing the legal issues in S-Town.

Matt Landis is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University School of Law and advises clients on issues of Information Technology & Internet LawIntellectual Property Law and Business Law.  He is also an avid podcast listener and looks forward to his daily commute so that he can catch up on the latest podcasts.