The answer is no! In the United States neither the deceased nor their estates can sue for defamation. The dead don’t have rights against defamation, even if they are world famous with billion dollar estates.
But Michael Jackson’s estate nevertheless sued HBO after it aired the Leaving Neverland documentary, featuring men who very openly allege their grooming and sexual molestation as children aged 7 and 10 at the hands of the world’s biggest pop star.
Neverland refers to Michael Jackson’s 2,700-acre property in Los Olivos, California boasting a French Normandy-style 12,598-square-foot main residence, two guest houses, a lake, a 50-seat movie theatre, a tennis court, a 14-foot lagoon-style pool, a barn, and a Disney-themed train station. The ranch is still on the market, despite a price slash to $31 million from its original $100 million price tag.
Because Jackson’s estate could not sue for defamation, it instead sued HBO and parent company Time Warner for breach of contract based on a 1992 deal that provided HBO the rights to once air a televised concert after the release of Jackson’s album Dangerous. Jackson’s estate argues that the contract’s non-disparagement provisions are still effective against HBO today. Jackson’s estate also moved to compel arbitration based on the 1992 contract.
After Leaving Neverland aired a number of radio stations around the world stopped playing Jackson’s music. The Simpsons creators stopped airing one of their classic episodes because it featured Jackson’s voice. Louis Vuitton dropped Jackson-themed clothing from a collection, saying it found the “allegations in the documentary deeply troubling and disturbing”.
HBO’s lawyers call the arbitration demand a “poorly disguised and legally barred posthumous defamation claim.”
HBO argues that the Michael Jackson Estate’s interpretation of the non-disparagement clause is precisely the type of overbroad and arbitrary suppression of speech that violates HBO’s due process and First Amendment rights.
What do you think? Is the Jackson estate’s lawsuit a road to nowhere? Or should estates have the right to sue for defamation in order to protect the legacy of the deceased?