Sony Corp. has failed in an attempt to dismiss a false-advertising lawsuit filed by moviegoers who saw films endorsed by a fake critic concocted by a studio employee.
The California Court of Appeal for Los Angeles upheld a trial court ruling that the ads are commercial speech and not fully protected by the First Amendment. Sony, owner of the third-largest U.S. film studio by box office sales, sought dismissal under California’s anti-SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, law, which was created to prevent chilling of free speech.
Omar Rezec and Ann Belknap, who purchased tickets to see “A Knight’s Tale,” filed the lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of “millions” of people who paid to see films that Sony’s bogus critic, David Manning, praised in advertisements.
The appeals court rejected Sony’s argument that its ads were protected speech because the films themselves are noncommercial speech.
“Sony’s position would shield all sorts of mischief,” Judge Robert Mallano wrote in a 2-1 decision dated Tuesday. “For example, a film could be advertised as having garnered ‘Three Golden Globe Nominations’ when it had received none.”
Susan Tick, a spokeswoman at Sony’s Culver City-based studios, declined an immediate comment.
In a dissent that called the suit “the most frivolous case with which I have ever had to deal,” Judge Rueben Ortega said the complaint should be dismissed because the quotations by unknown critic Manning consisted of opinion and wouldn’t have deceived the average consumer.
Newsweek magazine in May 2001 discovered that David Manning, a purported critic for the Ridgefield Press in Connecticut, didn’t exist. Manning’s fabricated quotes were used in advertising for at least four films for Sony’s Columbia Pictures.