A Virginia gun rights group is suing the makers of the recent documentary “Under the Gun,” including Katie Couric, alleging defamation and seeking $12 million in damages.
The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Richmond by the group as well two of its members acting as individuals, alleges “actual malice” on the part of the filmmakers.
“Under the Gun” came out earlier this year. It included a scene that made a group of gun rights activists seem stumped by one of Couric’s questions. Couric herself later conceded the scene was “misleading.”
“We want to set the record straight and hold them accountable for what they’ve done,” Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave said in a statement.
The television network that premiered the documentary, Epix, is also named as a defendant in the suit.
Representatives for Couric and Soechtig did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Epix said “the claims against Epix in this lawsuit are completely without merit.”
“The network had no role in its creation or production and should therefore not be a party to this lawsuit,” it added.
At issue is an interview conducted by Couric with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Couric is shown on camera asking, “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorist from walking into, say, a licensed gun dealer and purchasing a gun?”
The documentary shows the group members silently looking around for about eight seconds. But the members actually responded to Couric’s question right away and spoke at length about their views.
The editing was exposed by a blogger in May, using a raw audio recording of the group interview.
The filmmakers were widely criticized for taking the interview out of context. Couric and the director, Stephanie Soechtig, both issued apologetic statements.
Couric said that when she saw an early version of the film, she questioned Soechtig “about the pause and was told that a ‘beat’ was added for, as she described it, ‘dramatic effect,’ to give the audience a moment to consider the question.”
Some of Soechtig’s allies argued that this was a relatively standard documentary practice. Others disagreed.
In Tuesday’s suit, the Virginia group’s lawyers, who specialize in defamation litigation, say the filmmakers “acted with actual malice by intentionally manipulating the raw footage to create a fictional exchange that they knew never happened.”
The “actual malice” standard for defamation suits means that plaintiffs have to prove a publisher either knew the material was false or showed reckless disagreed for the truth.
The suit also asserts that even after Couric noted the scene was misleading, “Epix continued to publish and promote the false and defamatory footage.”
Floyd Abrams, a legendary First Amendment lawyer, told CNNMoney that the gun rights group has a difficult case ahead of itself.
“A journalistic sin is sometimes a legal one as well—but often not,” Abrams said. “So the core legal issue in this case is not whether the segment of the broadcast at issue was fair but whether, as a result of the editing, it defamed the VCDL and two of its members.”
“On that issue, I would think the VCDL itself likely has a difficult case to prevail in and that the individuals who have sued have a better one, but still one that’s not without difficulty,” Abrams said.