Defamation and Las Vegas: Can Convention Gossip Support a Lawsuit?

Author: Cheryl Wilson

Guest Editor: Jenn N. Crittondon

November 2, 2020 3:00pm

Las Vegas, Nevada is an exciting town.  Even today, when the pandemic has kept most Americans from traveling around the country, Las Vegas continues to attract people from outside of Nevada for gaming, music, food, and outdoor desert activities. Visitors to Las Vegas, as of July 2020, totaled 11,170,700, which is a 55% decline from the 24,825,500 visitors during the same period of 2019.  https://www.lvcva.com/research/

A convention is one of the most popular reasons to visit Las Vegas because there are so many resources for group activities.  It is easy to travel to Las Vegas by plane or motor vehicle. The airport accepts international and national flights from all over the world.  Las Vegas has large convention centers with hundreds of cavernous rooms to host hundreds and thousands of guests at one time. There are thousands of hotel rooms available and hundreds of opportunities to interact with people with shared interests. Guests at conventions talk about what they are seeing.  They talk about products sold at conventions. They talk about what they experience during meetings. Being human, they gossip about the people with whom they interact at the convention.

Gossip is a basic element of community life.  Generally, gossip is casual and unconfirmed conversation about other people who are not present. Men and women gossip. It is not limited to any particular age group.  Given the social development of humans, it is not surprising that gossip also serves a societal function. A 2019 Time magazine article, “The Science Behind Why People Gossip,” reports most people regularly gossip for neutral or positive reasons to share valuable information with social networks and communities. Some scholars view gossip as evidence of cultural learning, including collective criticism if there is someone in the community perceived in a negative way.  https://time.com/5680457/why-do-people-gossip/

Assuming people tend to communicate gossip for neutral or positive reasons, what happens if the gossip goes “viral” and continues to reverberate months later with negative impact? If a person is hurt due to untrue gossip spread by another who has malicious intent, there may be a cause of action for defamation.  Under Nevada law, defamation claims require proof of, among other things, “a false and defamatory statement.” Clark Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Virtual Educ. Software, Inc., 213 P.3d 496, 503 (Nev. 2009). If the untrue gossip includes products or services provided by another, there may be a cause of action for business defamation. Clark Cty. Sch. Dist., supra at 504-05 (noting a business disparagement claim additionally requires proof of malice). However, the statements must be verbal or written, and they must be the cause of the harm. If there is no connection between the alleged gossip and the harm alleged, the suit may not succeed.

A recent and illustrative case was recently affirmed by the Ninth Circuit for the Court of Appeals.  In Alexander, et al v Falk, et. al., 2:16-cv-02268, (9/16/2020), plaintiff (“A”) is an erotic romance novelist. Her partner, “Y”, is an entertainer. Defendant “F” is the owner of a company that produced annual romance novel conventions to highlight authors and readers. In 2016, F hosted a convention in Las Vegas with 3,500 attendees and 700 authors. F was told by one of the romance authors who had a confrontation with Y that she “did not feel safe.” Other attendees allegedly separately reported to F that Y had questionable behavior. In conversation with two persons, F indicated Y would not be invited to future conventions due to “complaints” about his behavior from 10 or 12 people.

Days after the convention ended, over the verbal objections of F, one of the author/attendees posted a comment on social media identifying Y as a “predator” among other things.  Eventually F posted a social media statement that Y had been “banned” from her convention for the future. Other people (social media users) posted comments about Y.  More than one person posted negative things about Y in social media.

Plaintiffs, A and Y, sued F and an author “G” based on thirteen causes of action including defamation, commercial disparagement, trade libel, and fraud. Plaintiffs alleged they lost business opportunities due to the untrue gossip spread by F and G. After months of litigation, F filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and later affirmed on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. (Alexander, et. al. v. Falk, et. al., 2:16-cv-02268, September 16, 2020).

The District Court Order for Summary Judgment explained that it could be argued it is defamatory to inform people about complaints F received about Y, as it likely lowered the view of him.  However, the statements were true, as there is testimonial evidence that F, in fact, did receive complaints. Disparagement and defamation require the statements be defamatory and untrue. Therefore, there is no cause of action. Additionally, the social media publication by F of her “ban” of Y from her romance novel conventions is not a violation of law because the ban, itself, is not a statement.

Gossip may be unflattering, but it may not necessarily support a cause for damages.

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