Netflix Defamation Lawsuit Gets Settled With Director

By Sckylar Gibby-Brown | Updated

Netflix and filmmaker Ava DuVernay have reached a settlement in the defamation lawsuit brought by former New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein. The lawsuit centered on Fairstein’s portrayal in the critically acclaimed mini-series When They See Us, which dramatizes the infamous Central Park Five case.

The Central Park Five

The settlement came just days before the trial was set to commence. Netflix, under the terms of the defamation settlement agreement, will move a disclaimer stating that certain events in the series were dramatized from the credits to the beginning of each episode. Additionally, Netflix will make a $1 million donation to the Innocence Project. Fairstein will not receive any monetary compensation from the settlement.

An Infamous Case

When They See Us, released in 2019, tells the harrowing story of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park in 1989. The series highlights systemic failures and racial biases in the criminal justice system, with Fairstein depicted as a pivotal figure in the investigation and prosecution that led to the wrongful convictions. She is painted as the central villain in the series, which is what led Fairstein to sue Netflix for defamation.

Head Prosecutor Went After Netflix

Fairstein, who served as the head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit during the case, alleged that the series falsely attributed actions and viewpoints to her, portraying her as the orchestrator of unethical and coercive practices. In her lawsuit against Netflix, filed in 2020, she claimed defamation and sought damages of up to $8 million. She also requested the removal of specific scenes she deemed defamatory and the inclusion of a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode.

A Case With Far-Reaching Implications For Biographical Media

The case has drawn significant attention from industry insiders due to its potential implications for biographical movies and TV shows. Last year, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel ruled that five scenes in the Netflix series could be considered defamation, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The judge noted that a reasonable jury could find that the portrayal of Fairstein as the central villain in the series could have been done with actual malice, as the writers may have recklessly attributed unsupported conduct to her.

The Director Wanted To Go To Trial

Despite the settlement, Ava DuVernay, the creator of the series, expressed a desire to take the case to trial, arguing that she and Netflix shouldn’t be considered responsible for any defamation.

In a statement, she defended the series’ depiction of Fairstein, asserting her belief in Fairstein’s responsibility for the investigation and prosecution that led to the wrongful convictions. “Linda Fairstein was in the precinct for over 35 hours straight while the boys were interrogated as adults, often without parents present. Fairstein knew what was going on inside those interrogation rooms and controlled who entered, blocking one of the mothers from being with her 15-year-old son,” DuVernay said.

A Shot Across The Bow For Media Companies

Meanwhile, Kara Gorycki, Fairstein’s attorney in the Netflix defamation case, emphasized the broader implications of the settlement in her statement. “It is our sincere hope that this settlement serves as a wakeup call to Netflix and other media companies that they have a responsibility to show fidelity to the truth when portraying real human beings and should not attempt to profit from the utterly false villainization of people,” Gorycki stated.

The resolution of this lawsuit marks a significant moment in the ongoing conversation about artistic liberties and the ethical responsibilities of creators depicting real-life events. As Netflix moves forward, the defamation settlement may serve as a precedent for future productions navigating the delicate balance between storytelling and factual representation.