The movie, “Romeo Killer: The Christopher Porco Story,” is being challenged by Porco, currently in prison, under a New York publicity rights statute that requires permission from a subject for use of his or her image for “advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade.” Robert J. Muller, Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, rejected arguments from Lifetime that his issuance of a temporary restraining order would set a “dangerous precedent,” ruling that he found Lifetime’s argument “unavailing” because the network “appears to concede this movie is fictionalized.”
The cabler filed an emergency motion today calling for Muller’s order to be vacated, on the grounds that it is a “patently unconstitutional, prior restraint.”
Noting that Porco had not even seen the movie, Lifetime’s attorneys said that “with nothing more than this unexplored claim of ‘fictionalization,’ the trial court entered a temporary restraining order, finding that Porco might otherwise be deprived of his ‘statutory remedy’ of injunctive relief is he is able to prevail at a preliminary injunction hearing the court has now scheduled for late April.”
The TV movie business was practically built on torn-from-the-headlines tales of real-life crimes, often with producers not obtaining rights from their subjects, which is why the judge’s order was such a surprise. Lifetime argued that any politician or other public figure could merely claim that a movie project was fictionalized and get a court to halt it.
California also has a publicity rights statute, but its reference to the commercialization of a person’s image is often interpreted as meaning such things as merchandising and advertising, not the content of shows. Muller’s conclusion that “Romeo Killer” is fictionalized is what seems to have placed it in a whole different category from First Amendment protected works.
Porco, who was convicted in 2006, already has been the subject of a “48 Hours Mystery” and an episode of the TruTv series “Forensic Files.”
Lifetime said in its filing that Muller appeared to base his contention that the movie was fictionalized “based solely on Porco’s hearsay observations about how the movie was being advertised” and “without any factual support at all.”
“The Supreme Court’s order is unprecedented and would cause grave and irreparable damage not just to Lifetime but the constitutional protections for speech,” Lifetime said in its briefing.