Thursday, March 18, 2010



Trial Set to Begin March 29 in Philadelphia to Test Free Speech By a Most Public Figure

March 18, 2010

Now that a Federal Judge has ruled Oprah Winfrey can be sued for defamation of character, plaintiff Nomvuyo Mzamane will have the task of taking on one of the world's most famous women for doing what she does best: sharing her thoughts with the universe.

Oprah Winfrey attends the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls...
(Michelly Rall/WireImage/Getty Images)
The suit, slated to begin March 29 in Philadelphia, raises the question of whether a jury can distinguish between Winfrey the public figure, famous for deep chat sessions with guests on her show, and Winfrey the person who may or may not have defamed Mzamane when addressing a sexual abuse scandal at her school in Africa.

"When you think of cases of public people being sued, there aren't that many of them today," Floyd Abrams, a famed First Amendment attorney, said in an interview with ABC News. "That's because the law is generally protective of free speech, and because courts and juries are generally sensitive to the needs of protecting free speech."

In the 128-page opinion published March 15 in Mzamane v. Winfrey, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno concluded that statements made by Winfrey at a November 2007 press conference were "capable of defamatory meaning." The judge rejected arguments made by Winfrey's lawyers that the remarks were merely "expressions of opinion."

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According to court documents, in 2007 students at the school accused one of the dorm matrons, Virginia Tiny Makgobo, of sexual abuse, prompting Winfrey and the school's executives to call in the authorities to investigate. Six girls have accused Makgobo of sexual abuse. She has pleaded not guilty, and her trial is ongoing.

Following the allegations, Winfrey met with parents of the students, fired Mzamane as head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy School and held a press conference. Winfrey opened the elite boarding school for high-achieving poor South African girls near Johannesburg in January 2007

Winfrey is quoted in court documents as saying: "I'm going to find a new head of the academy for the school. ... Dorm parents are gone, [Mzamane] is gone," in her meeting with the parents.

According to the judge, that statement suggested Mzamame had a role in the alleged mistreatment of the students which would "clearly blacken plaintiff's reputation or injure her in her profession."

"Plaintiff submits that despite her unblemished record of professional employment, she was unable to obtain a position in the educational field from the time of Winfrey's public comments until August 2008. Furthermore, plaintiff asserts that she suffered personal humiliation and distress as a result of being wrongly associated with the misconduct at OWLAG due to Winfrey's comments," Robreno says.
"Oprah and Harpo await the opportunity to present the case in court," her lawyer, Chip Babcock of Houston, said in a statement issued this week through Harpo, Winfrey's production company, which is also a defendant in the suit.

Babcock successfully defended Winfrey during her 1998 libel trial in Texas after she was sued over a segment on mad cow disease.

Although the case has been allowed to proceed, Abrams said Mzamane has no easy task ahead of her, but not simply because she is facing off against Winfrey.

"It's true that libel law in America is generally protective of free speech. Plaintiffs have a difficult task in prevailing but not an impossible one," he said.

Winfrey's fame and the media storm the trial will bring aside, Abrams is confident both parties will get a fair trial.

"I think she [Winfrey] can get a fair trial, and I think the plaintiff can get a fair trial even if she is one of the most-admired women in America, because my experience is, juries are pretty good at parsing through to find out what the facts are," Abrams said.