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A group formed to combat violence on television has lost a bid to escape a lawsuit for defamation brought by one of its targets: the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. (WWFE). On Thursday federal Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a motion to dismiss made by the Media Research Center, which allegedly blamed the WWF for the deaths of four children at the hands of other youths who were imitating wrestling moves when the tragedies occurred. Chin also refused to dismiss other claims the federation brought against the group, including violations of the Lanham Act, in World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. v. Bozell, 00 Civ. 8616. “Here, the amended complaint alleges statements that are reasonably susceptible of defamatory meaning,” Chin said. “A reasonable fact-finder could conclude that defendants’ statements blaming the WWFE for the deaths of at least four children exposed the WWFE to shame and disgrace.” The genesis of the lawsuit was the defense employed by a Florida attorney whose 14-year-old client, Lionel Tate, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a 6-year-old girl. Unsuccessfully, attorney James Lewis employed a “wrestling defense,” claiming that Lionel Tate was only mimicking wrestling moves when the girl’s death occurred. The federation said the young girl’s death, and the deaths of three other children, prompted the Media Research Center, its television-monitoring group the Parents Television Council (PTC), and PTC Chairman and nationally syndicated columnist L. Brent Bozell, as well as Lewis, to launch a series of defamatory attacks on the WWF and its weekly wrestling show, “WWF Smackdown.” Aimed at advertisers and other corporate sponsors, the group sent letters, published articles on its Internet Web site and had Bozell write columns about the threat posed by the wrestling show. One statement allegedly made by Bozell and posted on the Internet said, “the finger is pointing directly to Smackdown,” as being responsible for the death of the four children. In its lawsuit, WWFE said three of the deaths had occurred before the show began airing, and a fourth occurred only two days after “WWF Smackdown” went on the air. WWFE claimed that the defendants made the false statements for commercial purposes to raise money and the group’s profile — and misrepresented the number of sponsors who had withdrawn their support of WWFE, when, in fact, some of the named corporations never sponsored the wrestling show. Also, the WWFE said the PTC distributed a videotape to potential contributors in which it attacked the WWFE and used, without permission, excerpts of copyrighted broadcasts. COMMERCIAL SPEECH The defendants argued that their statements were protected by the First Amendment and, in Judge Chin’s words, were part of a “good faith effort to reduce the level of violence and sex on television.” “Defendants are free to criticize the WWFE and to express the opinion that the WWFE’s shows are excessively violent and not in society’s best interests,” Chin said. “What defendants may not do, however, is make false and defamatory statements.” Chin then found that the WWFE had sufficiently alleged, for purposes of a motion to dismiss, that some of the statements attributed to the PTC were commercial speech “that is not entitled to heightened constitutional protection,” because the statements were made to raise money and promote the PTC. On the WWFE’s Lanham Act claim for trademark dilution, Chin agreed that the WWFE had stated a claim on “tarnishment,” because the defendants had stated WWFE’s programming was “criminal” and responsible for the death of four children. “In addition, as many of these statements were made to viewers, sponsors and advertisers of the WWFE’s products, defendants’ actions likely tarnished the WWFE’s reputation,” Chin said. Eugene R. Licker, Jerry S. McDevitt, Terry Budd, Jason L. Richey and Curtis B. Krasik, of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, represented the WWFE. Thomas A. Leghorn of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker; Robert R. Sparks Jr. and Linda Stiles Shively of Herge, Sparks & Christopher of Virginia represented the defendants, L. Brent Bozell III, Media Research Center Inc. and Parents Television Council Inc. Michael J. Quarequio of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., represented James Lewis.

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