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Here’s yet another reason not to take part in a reality-based show: Critics can call contestants names like “chicken butt” and “big skank” for appearing on those programs, and there’s little the targets of their scorn can do about it. In April, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District justice Mark Simons tossed out a lawsuit by game show contestant Jennifer Seelig, who claimed she was defamed by a San Francisco radio station. In February 2000, the talk show hosts of KLLC’s Sarah and Vinnie morning show poked fun at Seelig for unsuccessfully competing on the television show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? Simons ruled that the radio personalities were engaging in protected free speech on an issue of public interest. Name-Callers Have Rights Justice Simons labeled Seelig’s claim a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suit aimed at curtailing speech. He also said that KLLC hosts Sarah Clark and Vincent Crackhorn (Crackhorn recently left the show) had done nothing wrong- shy of bad taste-in calling Seelig a “chicken butt,” “big skank,” and “local loser” on the air. “By having chosen to participate as a contestant on the [TV] show,” Simons wrote, “[Seelig] voluntarily subjected herself to inevitable scrutiny and potential ridicule by the public and the media.” KLLC’s barb-filled broadcast focused on why anyone would appear on a TV program in which 50 women competed for a $35,000 wedding ring, a new car, and marriage to a complete stranger. Seelig was asked to participate on the KLLC talk show; but she refused to be in the show without being assured in writing that she wouldn’t be humiliated. The talk show hosts did not agree. After Seelig refused to appear on their show, the hosts made fun of her anyway. Bad Taste Doesn’t Kill The First District found the phrase “big skank” too vague to be found true or false. It also declared the two other offensive descriptions not actionable because they were “unquestionably” statements of subjective judgment. “We find them indistinguishable in nature from phrases such as ‘creepazoid attorney’ and ‘loser wannabe lawyer,’ which were found to be rhetorical hyperbole in [a 1999 Second District] case,” Justice Simons wrote. “Although sophomoric and in bad taste, the comments are just the type of name-calling of the ‘sticks and stones will break my bones’ variety that the Second District found to be not actionable as a matter of law.” In addition, Justice Simons wrote, the term “chicken butt” “could not have been meant for the listeners to take literally because its literal interpretation is nonsensical when applied to a human being.” The court’s ruling awards KLLC attorneys’ fees and costs at trial and on appeal. And it sends an unofficial message that appearing on so-called reality shows could be really embarrassing in the real world. This article originally appeared in The Recorder, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and a part of American Lawyer Media.

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