Blake Shelton says he doesn’t drink too much. And he asserts that a cover story carried by In Touch Weekly last September that framed him as having enough of a drinking problem to send him to rehab was built on “friend-of-friend gossip” and a guy who thinks he can “spot alcoholism.”
The country singer and Voice star has lashed back at an attempt from Bauer Publishing to strike his defamation lawsuit.
Bauer is leveraging California’s anti-SLAPP statute, meant to deter legal actions aimed at infringing First Amendment rights on an issue of public interest. Shelton’s attorney Larry Stein argues in opposition papers filed Wednesday that a “celebrity’s private medical condition is not an issue of public interest.”
If a judge agrees, the lawsuit moves forward. If not, the judge weighs Shelton’s likelihood of prevailing in the lawsuit before giving a green light. There will be plenty of issues for the judge to analyze if it gets this far.
For example, what exactly did the story with the cover line “The Real Story: REHAB for Blake” communicate?
Bauer says the story was clear that he didn’t go to rehab, that he wouldn’t listen to those who wanted him there and that he was throwing himself into the new season of The Voice, NBC’s reality competition show.
Shelton’s opposition provides case law for the precedent that “a cover alone can be a basis of a claim for defamation,” and as for the story itself, it focuses on Shelton’s supposed need for rehab, specifically that he “hit rock bottom,” that his “drinking and womanizing are what helped torpedo his four-year marriage to Miranda” (referring to singer Miranda Lambert), and that his friends think he should go to rehab.
“None of these statements constitute opinion,” states the opposition brief.
If Shelton drinks so much and has a need for rehab, so what? That’s essentially the question that Bauer put to the judge by arguing in its own brief: “There is nothing inherently defamatory about electing to seek treatment for drinking.”
Au contraire, comes the response. “Accepting as true that changing social mores have led to an increased number of people with empathy for people suffering from alcoholism, Bauer is not immunized from liability for defamation where a respectable minority still views the Rehab Story with contempt,” argues the plaintiff.
Bauer is also attempting to make the provocative argument that Shelton is “libel-proof” thanks to many tweets sent out to more than 15 million followers crowing about how much he drinks. In fact, the publisher asserted that Shelton is famous for his (since-deleted) Twitter tagline, “Drunk.”
“The libel-proof doctrine is disfavored and no California state court has ever applied it,” states the Shelton brief, which it must be noted, comes in federal court. Nevertheless, the brief adds, “Shelton’s hyperbolic Tweets and other statements do not make him libel-proof because his followers understand the forum in which they are made and that they are part of a theatrical persona, not reality… Shelton is not libel proof from allegations of alcoholism or reports that he needs rehab simply because he is known to enjoy alcoholic beverages… Admission to regularly imbibing a legal substance does not allow any party to state that he needs rehab and certainly does not make Shelton libel proof from claims of a need for rehab or excessive drinking to the point of harming his professional and personal life.”
All of this hardly ends the analysis, because Shelton is a public figure, and as such, has to show actual malice in the form of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
Bauer says that In Touch relied on past news reports and had sources, but Shelton’s attorney ridicules this.
To those past news reports, the opposition brief states, “What Bauer does not tell the Court, however, is that many of such reports were published by Bauer itself or alleged third parties (e.g. Radar Online) that simply quote from Bauer’s own articles.”
And as for the sources — including a woman leaving Mexico who spoke to a couple of people at a hotel who observed and spoke to Shelton (“double hearsay”!) there during his supposed alcoholic bender — Stein writes this is the evidence perhaps “most appalling (and the best evidence of Bauer’s malice).”
Plus there’s this guy: “Exemplary of the shoddy journalism pervasive throughout the Rehab Story, Bauer quotes a purported addiction expert who is, in fact, a Certified Financial Planner without any medical training whatsoever, who claims he has the ability to ‘spot alcoholism.’”
If that’s not enough to carry the lawsuit forward, Shelton provides declarations from Voice producers, an exec at his record company, his manager, plus his own that states in part, “I do not drink excessively, binge drink, or have a drinking problem. I do not, as the Rehab Story alleges, drink vodka before 11 a.m. I am never drunk, intoxicated, or unable to perform my job on The Voice or elsewhere. I do not slur my words or stumble when I drink. I have never urinated on a mailbox in public, or otherwise. I did not start drinking at 14. I did not start drinking as a teenager. I did not start drinking to cope with my brother’s death.”
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.