Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn this week filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit against hit Fox TV show “Empire” co-creater Lee Daniels. Penn, who won Oscars for Milk and Mystic River, is apparently upset that Daniels alluded to the actor’s alleged propensity for domestic violence. The lawsuit hinges on a statement Daniels made to The Hollywood Reporter (THR), in which he defends the apparent domestic violence proclivities of Empire star Terrance Howard. Terrance “ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some f—kin’ demon,” Daniels told THR, adding, “That’s a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America.”
All-righty then…so, Daniel’s statement is worth $10 million in damages?
Well, according to Penn’s complaint, due to his “status as a public figure, he has for years been subject to scandalous, scurrilous an baseless attacks. But Penn, like any other citizen, has a right to defend himself and will no longer tolerate the reckless and malicious behaviour of others, who seek to aggrandize themselves or their projects at his expense. Accordingly, and because of Daniel’s defamatory statements, Penn brings this action for monetary relief, and to deter Daniels and others from their defamatory actions.”
Penn’s complaint asserts that Daniel’s comments are “egregious” on several levels, in that they acknowledge, if not even condone, Howard’s misconduct, while falsely equating Penn with Howard. While Penn has certainly had “several brushes with the law,” the complaint states that “Penn (unlike Howard) has never been arrested, much less convicted for domestic violence, as his ex-wives (including Madonna) would confirm and attest.” The complaint further takes issue with Daniels coming to Howard’s defense as “apparently part of a misguided campaign to profit and further bolster and brand his show ‘Empire’ (on the eve of the Emmy Awards, when the statements were made).”
Three questions with regard to this lawsuit: Why now? Why Lee Daniels? And does this lawsuit have any merit?
Penn has been associated with domestic violence since at least 1987 when then-wife Madonna checked into New York’s Cedars Sinai hospital for an X-ray, after Penn allegedly smacked her across the head with a baseball bat. According to many reputable news reports of the time, Penn was charged with “felony domestic assault,” but pled guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge. Rumors of domestic violence also plagued him during his tumultuous 20-some-year relationship and marriage to Robin Wright, though no arrests were ever reported. Along with an apparent propensity for wife beating, the actor also has it out for paparazzi, with several reported assaults (including the alleged dangling of a photographer by the heels over a ninth floor hotel balcony) and a 33-day stint in jail for assault.
Given that Penn’s extracurricular activities have been written about extensively for years by numerous media organizations (including some with a lot more money than Lee Daniels), it’s odd that Penn’s first lawsuit to defend himself from the wife-beating accusations comes now. What makes it even odder is that Daniel’s reference to Penn’s wife beating is an allusion, whereas various media organizations spell it out. Pure speculation, but perhaps Penn had a run-in with Daniels, but for whatever reason was unable to treat him like paparazzi.
As for merit, well despite media reports of Penn’s felony arrest and subsequent guilty to a lesser charge plea, some minor-league news organizations today say they can find no record of that arrest. If there is truly no arrest record then the legal proceedings will have to rely on the merits of “who said what,” and given that Daniel’s statement gives merely the allusion of Penn’s domestic violence, we wonder whether Penn has a legal leg to stand on.
Frankly, we think this case only has slightly more merit than that of the Fox news anchor suing the plastic rodent (please see Hash it Out September 4 blog: Will The Real Harris Faulkner Please Stand Up!), but we leave it to you, the reader, to hash out.