A mid-level state appeals court has upheld a judge's dismissal of a lawsuit the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York filed against the Showtime television network, arguing fictional characters in an episode of "Billions" defamed the nation and its federally recognized representative.
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department issued a decision Tuesday in favor of Showtime. The panel agreed with a state Supreme Court in New York County decision issued in July 2020 to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019.
The decision says the Cayuga Nation, as a government entity, cannot file a libel claim. It also agreed with Showtime's arguments that the show's content is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"Contrary to Cayuga Nation’s contention, First Amendment principles are applicable to cases involving libel claims arising from fictional works of entertainment," the decision said.
The Cayugas and federally recognized representative Clint Halftown sued over a May 2019 episode with a fictional character named Jane Halftown who is identified as a council member of the "Cayuga Iroquois." The lawsuit argues that show falsely depicted the Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown as engaging in fraud, bribery and other immoral behaviors.
The court also said Halftown himself failed to show he had been personally defamed by the episode.
"Supreme Court correctly found that the allegedly defamatory matter in the episode was not 'of and concerning' Halftown, that is, the fictional character Jane Halftown was not “so closely akin” to plaintiff that a viewer “would have no difficulty linking the two.”
Cayuga Nation attorney Lee Alcott issued a statement about the decision.
"The Cayuga Nation would not allow this to go unchallenged nor will we in the future. ... We knew that the lawsuit was challenging when we filed it, but we also knew we could not let these offensive statements stand unchallenged."
The nation is reviewing options for further appeals.