Judge tosses "Borat" lawsuit

April 2, 2008 6:59:11 PM PDT
A judge has tossed out a defamation lawsuit brought by a businessman shown in the movie "Borat" as he is chased down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. The 2006 hit, starring Cohen as a crass Kazakhstan journalist, can be deemed "newsworthy," defined in its most liberal and far-reaching terms, U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska said.

New York civil rights law provides limited protection for any person whose image is used for advertising or trade purposes without his written consent, she said, and the nonconsensual use of a person's image to depict newsworthy events or matters of public interest is exempt from the law.

The lawsuit had sought unspecified damages from the movie's producer, Twentieth Century Fox, for Jeffrey Lemerond, who claimed he was humiliated when the Borat character tried to catch him.

In the movie, Lemerond, a Dartmouth College graduate and financial analyst, is shown running and yelling "Go away!" as Borat chases him in an attempt to hug strangers.

The judge conceded that the movie "employs as its chief medium a brand of humor that appeals to the most childish and vulgar in its viewers." But she said the movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," also attempts an ironic commentary.

"The movie challenges its viewers to confront, not only the bizarre and offensive Borat character himself, but the equally bizarre and offensive reactions he elicits from `average' Americans,"' she wrote.

Lemerond lawyer Eric Hecker said the ruling would be appealed.

"We think New York law is clear that a corporation like Twentieth Century Fox is not entitled to pluck an otherwise anonymous citizen out of a crowd and subject him to public humiliation in order to make a buck," he said.

A telephone message left with a spokesman for Twentieth Century Fox was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Lemerond's lawsuit, filed last year, said he suffered "public ridicule, degradation and humiliation" because of his appearance in the film.

The lawsuit alleged that Twentieth Century Fox knew it was unlawful to use the footage of Lemerond without his consent because it scrambled his face in a trailer for the movie.

In deciding the case Monday, the judge wrote that courts considering whether something is newsworthy must consider solely the content rather than the publisher's motive to produce a profit.

She also said courts should be wary of replacing the editorial judgment of the media in deciding what is newsworthy or of public interest.

In the movie, Borat clashes with American culture as he travels across the country in search of Pamela Anderson.

The film has led to several lawsuits from those who claimed they were duped into appearing in it. Others who have filed suits have included South Carolina fraternity members, a Maryland driving instructor, Romanian villagers and an etiquette teacher.


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