Addressing the tension between the First Amendment and the right to privacy under New York law, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, unanimously held that despite being partially fictionalized, a movie based on true events did not violate the privacy rights of the film’s subjects. Porco v. Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC, Case No. 531681 NY Supr. Ct, Appellate Div. Third Judicial Dept, June 24, 2021) (Fitzgerald, J.)
Christopher Porco was tried and convicted for the murder of his father and attempted murder of his mother in 2011. Lifetime Entertainment created a movie inspired by the events titled, Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story. Porco and his mother sued to stop the broadcast, alleging that the film (and related promotional materials) violated their rights of privacy under New York law.
Both parties moved for summary judgment on liability, with Lifetime arguing that the movie did not violate the plaintiffs’ right to privacy “because it depicted newsworthy events to which the use of their names was reasonably related.” The New York Supreme Court denied both motions, finding that questions of fact remained as to whether the depiction of events was “so materially and substantially fictitious as to give rise to liability.” The parties cross-appealed.
New York’s statutory right of privacy (Civil Rights Law §§ 50 and 51) prohibits the unauthorized use of “a living person’s name, portrait or picture . . . for advertising or trade purposes.” On appeal, the Court recognized the tension with the First Amendment, as the right of privacy does not prohibit reporting on “newsworthy events or matters of public interest, even if the reports were produced with profit in mind.” This “newsworthiness exception” is inapplicable, however, in situations where the “newsworthy or public interest aspect . . . is merely incidental to its commercial purpose” or “where the purported aim of the work is to provide biographical information of obvious public interest, but the content is substantially fictionalized.”
Porco argued that the film, a docudrama, fell within the latter category. The New York Supreme Court noted that the events depicted were “indisputably” newsworthy, but Porco contended that the movie was an “invented biography” that had “no purpose at all beyond the actionable one of exploiting their names and likenesses for profits.” The Court held that the film did not violate Porco’s rights of privacy, despite containing some fictionalizations, for two reasons. First, based on a review of materials such as the real police and media interviews with Porco and excerpts from his criminal trial, the Court concluded that the film was “broadly accurate.” Second, the film did not mislead viewers or present itself as wholly truthful, because it included the statement “based on a true story” at the beginning of the film and stated at the end that it was a “dramatization in which some names have been changed, some characters are composites and certain other characters and events have been fictionalized.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s denial of Lifetime’s motion for summary judgment.