Katie Holmes filed a $50 million libel lawsuit on March 1 against American Media Inc., the publisher of Star Magazine, after the tabloid published an article in its Jan. 31 issue insinuating that she had a drug addiction. The headline of the cover story was “Addiction Nightmare — Katie Drug Shocker! — The Real Reason She Can’t Leave Tom,” referring to husband Tom Cruise. The article inside the magazine described the actress’s alleged dependence on e-meters, which the Church of Scientology uses to determine a person’s mental state. Holmes is represented by Aaron Moss and Bertram Fields, the latter a longtime attorney for Cruise, who is an outspoken member of the Church of Scientology. Moss and Fields are partners at Los Angeles-based Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger.

Moss said the suit is the first libel action by Holmes, who has been a favorite topic of the tabloids since she married Cruise in 2006.

American Media could not be reached for comment, but issued a widely reported formal statement. “The physical effect of the e-meter on its users is a matter of significant public concern and we plan to vigorously defend the suit filed by Ms. Holmes,” the company said. “Our attorneys look forward to deposing Ms. Holmes about her experiences with Scientology and the e-meter, and expect that the case will be promptly dismissed by the court.”

This article has been edited for length and clarity.


NLJ: Katie Holmes has been on the cover of tabloid magazines for several years. What prompted her to file suit this time?

A.M.: Obviously, she’s no stranger to having articles about her in various publications, both legitimate magazines and tabloids. And certainly, on the tabloid side, there are lots of false stories printed about her — everything from the fact she wants to divorce Tom, which is not true, to various stories about how she interacts with her daughter. When it came to this story, we sent letters, and we are vigilant in protecting her rights the best that we can, but obviously there are First Amendment hurdles to overcome, as well as the issue of when is something defamatory. Just because it’s false doesn’t necessarily mean it’s defamatory. Here, the combination of how outrageous this was, how false it was, but also the tendency to injure her both personally and professionally all added up to saying, “We need to do something about this now.”

NLJ: Bert Fields is well known for aggressively protecting Tom Cruise’s image and sending demand letters to the tabloids. You wrote a letter to American Media, and they agreed to pull the story from their Web site and not re-publish it. Why wasn’t this enough?

A.M.: Again, I think it had to do with the severity of what the publication was accusing her of and the fact that there’s not even a shred of truth to it. There’s a certain impression conveyed by the cover that’s not backed up even in the article itself. And I think her feeling was that, “If I don’t sue over this one, what’s going to be next? It’s really time to stand up for my rights in court because being nice about this and urging them to print the truth has not necessarily been working.” Sometimes, the only way to truly protect your rights is go the extra step and file a lawsuit.

NLJ: So this is about more than just this one article?

A.M.: It is a pattern and practice, and it has gotten progressively worse, to the point where now they’re suggesting that she’s a drug user. Again, in seeing the progression that these stories have taken, the concern was if we don’t do something now and the paper thinks they can get away with making progressively worse and worse stories, where’s that going to lead?

NLJ: This story seems to implicate the Church of Scientology and its use of e-meters. Is this case about the Church of Scientology, also?

A.M.: The answer is no, not really. As far as we’re concerned, this case is not about the e-meter. The e-meter is designed as a way for Star, in this case, to attempt to justify the headline that they put on there. But frankly, even if all the things they said about the e-meter are true, which they are not, it would not justify the statement that she’s a drug user. That’s the basis of the lawsuit. It has nothing to do with the church or with this e-meter.

That being said, if you want to ask me about the suggestion that the e-meter somehow causes an endorphin rush, the e-meter is not a drug. It’s not a medical device. It’s a religious artifact. It is not used to treat any disease or diagnose any disease, and in fact there’s plenty of information about the e-meter available on the Scientology Web site, including the fact that the amount of voltage that is produced by this device is 1.5 volts, which is less than a flashlight battery. To suggest that this somehow causes an endorphin rush that is on par with heroin is just flat out wrong.

That being said, even if it were correct that it produces endorphins, so does running on a treadmill. And nobody would ever try to call exercise a “drug shocker,” which is really the crux of what the paper is doing here by tricking readers who read the headline and don’t bother to look to the story that’s buried 42 pages below.

NLJ: Do you or Greenberg Glusker represent the Church of Scientology?

A.M.: No, we do not. And from our perspective, this has nothing to do with the church, other than you can tell that from the statement that the publication has issued in response to this lawsuit that American Media is looking to put the church on trial. From our perspective, this case has nothing to do with the e-meter. It’s about whether the Star defamed Ms. Holmes by suggesting clearly on its front cover that she’s addicted to drugs even though they have nothing whatsoever to back that up.

NLJ: Most libel cases by celebrities go nowhere, since the press is protected by the First Amendment. Why do you think you have a case?

A.M.: The hurdle that some celebrities have difficulties overcoming is the requirement that they demonstrate actual malice, which requires that the publisher published the defamatory statement either knowing it was false or in reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. In most cases, that’s difficult to prove because the question is really, “Did they interview the right sources? Did they subjectively believe the sources who were providing information?”

Here, it’s not difficult at all, because we know from the inside story they don’t have a single source who has stated she’s addicted to drugs. The paper knew when it wrote these defamatory headlines on the cover that clearly implied that she is addicted to a drug on the order of heroin that it wasn’t true. There’s no issue about whether they truly believe she’s addicted to drugs. We know they don’t believe it because their own story doesn’t support it. There’s a case the 9th Circuit decided 10 years ago that clearly holds magazine covers and headings are not liability-free zones.

NLJ:
The case you’re referring to involved Kato Kaelin, who won a 9th Circuit ruling in a libel case he filed after being implicated by a tabloid story. What was that case about?

A.M.: In that case the tabloid — I believe it was Globe Communications Corp. [publisher of the National Examiner] — published a headline that said “Cops Think Kato Did It,” or something to that effect. The clear impression that anybody would look upon seeing that caption was that cops thought Kaelin committed the murders that O.J. Simpson was tried with committing. But in fact they refer to an allegation that Kaelin had committed perjury. In that case there was some explanatory material in smaller print on the cover, the same cover as the defamatory material. Here, the so-called explanation for this “drug shocker” doesn’t appear until 42 pages after the headlines, so I think it’s an even stronger case than Kaelin. There are lots of cases that suggest or hold that individual statements within an article can be defamatory on their own. But that’s certainly one we’ll be relying on.

NLJ: How did you calculate the $50 million in damages you are seeking?

A.M.: I don’t want to disclose any attorney-client privilege communications, but I’ll just say that represents our feeling as to the hit that has been taken with respect to the plaintiff’s reputation. It’s obviously difficult to quantify all the calls that a celebrity won’t receive after having an article like this published, something that millions of people see at the supermarket, at the check-out counter, without bothering to read the story inside. As we get closer to trial, we’ll be able to put on evidence in order to prove her damages.
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at abronstad@alm.com.