Lee Daniels Calls Sean Penn’s Lawsuit ‘Assault on the First Amendment’

Lee Daniels Star Cast
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Lee Daniels fired back at Sean Penn’s $10 million defamation suit against him, contending that the actor was engaging in “financially draining attacks brought to punish free speech exercised to Penn’s chagrin.”

At issue is a comment that Daniels, co-creator of Fox’s hit series “Empire,” gave to the Hollywood Reporter in which he compared legal troubles faced by “Empire” star Terrence Howard to those faced by other actors.

Daniels said Howard “ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of the sudden he’s some f—in’ demon. That’s a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America.”

Penn sued, contending that Daniels had falsely accused him of hitting women.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Daniels contends that what he said was “constitutionally protected opinion” and that “in that it is an assault on the First Amendment and New York’s Constitution,” the litigation should be thrown out. He also contends that Penn failed to show he made the remarks with actual malice, the legal threshold for defamation when it comes to public figures.

Daniels’ response was filed on Thursday in New York Supreme Court. He is represented by James Sammataro of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

Daniels also challenges the notion that Penn’s reputation was impaired by his remarks, contending that “accusations of misconduct have trailed Penn for decades.”

“The public has long associated Penn with domestic abuse, if not outright guilty of vicious actions of violence. The public domain is saturated with tales of Penn’s alleged violent acts.”

Daniels’ response cites accounts from books such as Christopher Andersen’s “Madonna Unauthorized” and J. Randy Taraborrelli’s “Madonna: An Intimate Biography” in recounting Penn’s alleged physical abuse of former wife Madonna. It even cites Twitter reaction to a “poorly received” green card joke that Penn made at the Oscars this year, eliciting a story about Penn’s alleged abuse in the Daily Beast.

“While Penn may have personally experienced the challenged statement as offensive, he must now demonstrate that the statement is reasonably susceptible to defamatory meaning,” Daniels’ response reads. “He has not, and cannot. The challenged statement is constitutionally protected opinion, and New York courts have repeatedly emphasized the need to summarily reject defamation claims brought to bully those who dare exercise their constitutional right of free speech.”

Daniels’ response contends that Penn, in his lawsuit, exaggerated what Daniels said and took it to mean that Penn was guilty of “ongoing, continuous violence against women.”

Moreover, Daniels argues that he was making a comparison, which is “invariably an opinion incapable of sustaining a defamation claim.”

Daniels also notes that the Hollywood Reporter article describes the allegations against Howard — to whom the comparison was made — as “just that, allegations.”

“Because the challenged statement — like the article itself — is devoid of any provably false factual assertion regarding either Howard or Penn, there is no readily verifiable statement,” Daniels response states.

His response adds that the statement “does not accuse Penn of any specific act and is devoid of any statement that is either precise or provable enough to qualify as an assertion of fact.”

Penn’s lawsuit said that Daniels’ statements were “egregious” on several levels, including that “in his purported ‘defense’ of Howard, Daniels not only appears to acknowledge Howard’s guilt, he also seems to condone Howard’s reported misconduct.”

Penn claimed that “in purporting to ‘defend’ the ongoing legal and related troubles of actor Terrence Howard … who has reportedly, and publicly, admitted to physically abusing at least one woman and reportedly been arrested approximately five times for violent acts against women — Daniels has falsely asserted and/or implied that Penn is guilty of ongoing, continuous violence against women. Nor has Penn admitted to ‘slap[ping]’ a woman or abusing others (as Howard has also reportedly admitted, reportedly asserting that he was acting in self-defense).”

The complaint included a citation to a 2001 Whitemarsh Police Department report from a domestic disturbance, quoting Howard as admitting to an officer that he “broke the door down and hit my wife.”

But Daniels countered that the context of his remarks was a discussion of race and of Howard’s “receipt of imbalanced media coverage” as a “sign of the time, of where we are right now in America.” Those statement, Daniels’ filing states, are a “pragmatic expression of an opinion, on in which the First Amendment fiercely protects.”


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  1. The 1st amendment does not protect slander.

  2. Anonymous says:

    (robinsonbuckler @ yahoo. com) is a wonderful spell caster. Very trustworthy, he just restored my marriage……

  3. JoJay says:

    Hope Sean sticks to that fraud Danielz. People think they can run behind their race while slandering people.. Seans made a difference in Haiti.. What did you ever do Lee? Write a $50 check?

  4. SICK OF IT ALL says:

    After the last failure of a movie, seany boy is getting desperate. His career is over and everyone knows he’s a communist loving, socialist elitist piece of trash. He should be suing whoever gave him those ratty ass hair plugs.

  5. RTUT says:

    Lee, if you want to understand him, Sean seems to be a communist dictator sympathizer and appears to believes our constitution applies only to himself. He also appears to sympathize with the fascist liberal wing of American politics. So there you go, sir.

  6. Flayer says:

    So was it libel when Harry Reid, Senate minority leader, said that Mitt Romney didn’t pay his taxes for 10 years?

  7. realetybytes says:

    So, Sean, when exactly did you stop beating your wife?

  8. So his remarks prove that the police arrest records, hospital records, photos and so on have?

  9. cimmerian77 says:

    Love Terrance Howard, but the ’empire” series is trash. LOL, the character that plays his Ex-nag skank wouldn’t last 20 seconds trying to pull that crap in real life. I watched 2 episodes…..and that was 1 more than I should have.

  10. so now he spends all his time in Haiti…. hey little boy, want some candy?

  11. Is it libel to repost Wikipedia’s acknowledgement of his disgusting past behavior? Personal relationships and violence issues

    Penn with Robin Wright in September 2006
    Penn was engaged to actress Elizabeth McGovern, his co-star in 1984’s Racing with the Moon. Penn’s personal life began to attract media attention when he married pop singer Madonna in 1985. The two starred in the panned and much-derided Shanghai Surprise, directed by Jim Goddard, and Madonna dedicated her third studio album True Blue to Penn, referring to him in the liner notes as “the coolest guy in the universe”.[14] The relationship was marred by violent outbursts against the press, including one incident when he was arrested for assaulting a photographer on a film set; Penn was sentenced to 60 days in jail in mid-1987, of which he served 33 days.[15] Around the same time, he struck Madonna, his wife at the time, over the head with a baseball bat, although she did not press charges. It was alleged that he had tied Madonna to a chair for nine hours and beat her, with the incident only ending when she escaped to a police station. Penn and Madonna divorced in 1989.[16][17] In 1988, TMZ reported that Penn would be charged with misdemeanor assault, following an incident in Brentwood, California, in which Penn allegedly kicked a photographer, breaking his camera.[18]

    After the end of his first marriage, Penn soon began a relationship with actress Robin Wright, and their first child, a daughter named Dylan Frances, was born in 1991. Their second child, a son whom they named Hopper Jack, was born in 1993.

    Penn and Wright separated in 1995 during which time he developed a relationship with Jewel after he spotted her performing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He invited her to compose a song for his film The Crossing Guard and followed her on tour.[19]

    Penn and Wright reconciled and married on April 27, 1996, and lived in Ross, California.[1][20] The couple filed for divorce in December 2007, but reconciled several months later, requesting a court dismissal of their divorce case.[21] In April 2009, Penn filed for legal separation, only to withdraw the case once again when the couple reconciled in May.[22][23][24] On August 12, 2009, Wright Penn filed for divorce again.[25][26] The couple’s divorce was finalized on July 22, 2010, with the couple reaching a private agreement on child and spousal support, division of assets, and custody of Hopper, who was almost 17 at the time.[27]

    Penn dated actress Scarlett Johansson briefly in 2011.[28]

    In December 2013 he began dating actress Charlize Theron.[29][30] The two announced their engagement in December 2014 before Theron abruptly ended their relationship in June 2015.[31]

  12. RobX says:

    The First Amendment protects you from government interference, not from private businesses or citizens. Speech can have consequences and sometimes you must face them. That being said the best defense against a libel suit is truth. I am not sure Penn wants to revisit the police reports of his Madonna episodes.

  13. Lee Daniels must do a little more study about the details and benefits of the first amendment. Yes he may be protected in his speech to say what he thinks but he must also remember that his statements must be factual and not libelous. Sean Penn is also protected by the first amendment to say what he feels subject to the same restrictions.
    The American legal system affords us the right to sue in a court of law if we feel we have suffered any harm because of false or libelous statements made by others. Lee Daniels may be right or he many be wrong. Sean Penn is exercising his rights to sue in court. There is a big difference between seeking legal remedy and seeking justice only in the court of public opinion.
    Free speech comes with a lot of responsibilities. .Think before you speak is always a wise move

  14. Tom Gordon says:

    Reminds me of “Dueling Banjos” in “Deliverance” with the second word different although syllabically close.

  15. Rob Clary says:

    Sorry, words mean things, and if you’re going to exercise your free speech and speak slander, you just might be held accountable.

  16. jk says:

    And every Lee Daniels production is an assault on my senses! This guy is a pretentious jerk.

  17. leeuniverse says:

    That’s what liberals do…. If you do anything they don’t like, no matter how minor, they will use the force of the state against you. They are Fascists….. Further, what Sean Penn has done is clearly “malice”, thus he should be counter sued.

  18. Scott says:

    Oh NOWWW he wants to stand behind the first amendment.

  19. Michael says:

    He was certainly free to say that about Sean Penn, but he is not free from the consequences of the choice to do so. Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from consequences.

  20. I hope that these liberal douche-bags eat each other. I could not care less. However, folks you need to take a brief moment and review defamation and public figures on Wikipedia. It will at least give you a very cursory overview. Penn is wasting time and money.

  21. Alan Biggs says:

    Sean Penns rep has been harmed by the fact that he’s a communist.

  22. caligula says:

    i love when idiots like Daniels try to talk about things they don’t understand; like the Constitution, words with multiple syllables, and the English language in general. funny.

  23. george strong says:

    Lee Daniels is an anti-white racist. I hope Penn bankrupts him and his stupid soap opera gets canned.

  24. Funny, I never would have heard about Lee Daniels’ comments about Sean if Sean wouldn’t have sued. Sean is actually making matters worse for himself by drawing attention to an accusation that would have died in the crib had he not made a big deal over it by suing.

  25. Fred Zarguna says:

    The standard of “actual malice” does not apply in this case. That Penn is a public figure is irrelevant. Accusing someone of committing a crime is _defamation per se_. In cases of _defamation per se_, malice is predetermined in the nature of the statement itself.

    Daniels will have two avenues of defense: 1) If he can show that his remarks are clearly in the context of opinion. For example: “This is just my opinion, but I think Sean Penn is a woman beater.” or “I think it’s been established that Sean Penn hits people.” 2) Ultimately the truth or falsity of the remark if defense (1) fails. In that case, he will need to present evidence that his claim about Penn is true.

  26. Corn is Corny says:

    In my free speech opinion…they’re both pretty worthless as humans and really make no significant contributions to society and would do America better if they were exiled to Tierra Del Fuego with a foul weather jacket and cheap sunglasses

  27. RTF says:

    It would seem Penn has a legal case. “Constitutional opinion”. I’ve never heard of this. Slander and libel laws exist for a reason. You can’t say something about someone that might hurt their reputation, their ability to gain employment, that isn’t based on some kind of evidence. If there’s no evidence of Penn having hit women, even if it’s incredibly likely he did, then someone of notoriety like a famous film maker can not go on record insinuating he did. This is speculation, of course. I’ve not taken any legal course. Just as a citizen, I’ve become bewildered in recent years as to what people think the first amendment protects. We don’t have total freedom of speech, and never did. You can’t slander someone.

    • Free Speech says:

      Every person in America has a right to their opinion. Look it up. You can’t be sued successfully for stating an opinion. He didn’t actually say Penn hit any woman. Penn has a violent history of assault. To compare a person accused of assault to another person who has been accused of assault is hardly slanderous or libelous. Besides, he stated his opinion in comparing the two. Opinions are squarely in the realm of protected free speech. The speech police in this country need to bone up on what free speech means before they start suing everyone for saying things they just don’t want to hear.

  28. John Denman says:

    I don’t watch the program, as I have no interest in black people problems. Much of TV now is unwatchable, because of minority appeal. And why do I have to be an underage Mexican tyranny prostitute to get an insurance discount? Even the commercials are gender bender nonsense.

    • So everything that one says is protected under by the premise that what he has said is merely his opinion?


      If you want to say something along the lines of what Lee claimed, you need to be wise enough to use a qualifier. Lee did not.

      I don’t like Penn, and I relish the fact that although he is lauded by Hollywood and their cousins in the media for his incredible, “talent,” that his finest and most memorable performance was and still is that of portraying Jeff Spicoli. That said; the fact that Daniels does not understand that he can’t go around calling apples oranges is not Penn’s fault.

      How should this play out?

      Let the judge require a public apology to Penn and a donation by Lee to a domestic-abuse charity in the amount of $10K, and if Penn has any class, he’ll match it, and the two can shake hands and then use their industry skills in order to act as though there will be no hard feelings going forward.

    • Jack Kennedy says:

      welcome to the hellhole now known as ……………obamastan

  29. caligula says:

    two idiots fighting. i like how the one idiot played the race card though.

    shows he’s the bigger, brainless idiot.

  30. I dont’ think this lawsuit will go anywhere. Celebrities are public figures. Higher standard. And besides, who cares. Penn=crybaby. Sue me.

  31. Nearboston says:

    Hey Sean,

    If you don’t want to be compared to other women beaters, don’t beat women.

  32. Yukiko says:

    So, Sean when are you going to stop physically abusing women?

  33. Been thinking about Sean, wondering when he’d show up in Venezuela to help with the mess created by folks he supported. Glad to see he’s still around. But think he should really head south with cargo ship full of toilet paper.

  34. imahippyburning says:

    Seriously could care less, we have real issues to contend with in this Country! Sean Penn is a Dick that is for certain. Other then that who gives two Ch*ts!

  35. Joe Vance says:

    Penn has been very irritable ever since he has been unable to extract the Gerbil from his ass.

  36. brainpimp says:

    Penn will lose this in a rout.

  37. Greg miller says:

    I read this article out of curiosity. I don’t know Daniels and Penn is a leftist jerk. I can’t say I care how this turns out. Sure sounds like a thin skin instead of a defamation.

  38. carl6351 says:

    i guess libel is a word we should remove? you do not make statements that debase a person from article you read in the national enquirer, that is called libel when your mouth out paces your brain!

  39. George Blair says:

    Opinions are Constitutionally protected. Making comments as “fact” that slander / libel someone (depending on the media) are not.

    This from a Conservative who has no love for Sean Penn. (And truth be told pays little to no attention to hollyweird anyway).

  40. Dzicyb says:

    Accusing, someone of criminal conduct, overtly or by implication, is not a matter of “constitutionally protected opinion.” It is my opinion so and so is a pedophile, or a rapist, or a wife beater. it is called libel per se. i.e. defamation by its very nature. And besides, the first amendment doesn’t apply to a private citizen.

  41. phxfreddyii says:

    uh oh Sean….i had almost forgotten about you playing wack-a-mole with Madonna’s face. Or so I vaguely remember. Check my facts. This is only an opinion etc.

  42. Lisa says:

    Defamation trumps your freedom of speech.

    • Dzicyb says:

      You don’t seem to need facts. You just defamed Penn as well.

    • They both are public figures and a defamation lawsuit is held to a higher standard than a private citizen. Lawsuit most likely will not go anywhere as Lee knowingly had to make a false statement but you are correct defamation does trump freedom of speech.

  43. Rumplestiltskin says:

    If a person assaults and impugns another person’s character, it is not protected by the first amendment. If Daniels spoke to or implied that Penn struck another, which is illegal, then he had better have proof of the act. If he doesn’t then what he said is indictable as defamation of character.

    Our first amendment does not protect a person when they purposefully defame another. Free speech is one thing, attacking another person is another. Daniels needs to learn the difference !

  44. So civil litigation have evidence for Daniels?

  45. JB says:

    Wife beaters are the lowest of the low. Penn, Howard and many other celebs have been (or still are) wife beaters and deserve to be in jail, not on a stage making millions.

  46. tngilmer says:

    Obviously Daniels does not understand the First Amendment. The First Amendment only applies to government action.

  47. Scrumptious Lad says:

    Penn is a leftist dolt. A good actor, I’ll give him that but otherwise, the dude is a leftist dolt.

  48. James Cygnus says:

    Surprised he didn’t file a “hate crime” accusation against Penn while simultaneously sicking the race pimps on him.

  49. Jack says:

    The constitution does not protect one from responsibility for the public defamation of one’s character and reputation. This is not a first amendment matter. It is a civil suit on the grounds of intentional injury by making false statements about another citizen. The first amendment is a red herring.

  50. John johnston says:

    It is a valid comparison…they are both scumbags….

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