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In a world where sharing part of your daily routine on social media become the norm the fight against “privacy” rights becomes a blurry subject especially when the person is a celebrity and anything they do becomes “newsworthy” material.

After the famous incident of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, the issue of protected activity versus public interest has become a prominent sector of entertainment litigation.

On Monday, a California appeals court reviewed an extensive debate over boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s social media postings. These posts revolve around his ex-girlfriend, Shantel Jackson, outlining specific details about their break up and additional commentary on Jackson’s abortion of their twins and plastic surgery history. The ruling favored the boxer but not entirely, since the hot area of privacy law under the First Amendment protection of publication and truthful information comes into the picture.

The celebrity status of both Mayweather and Jackson propelled these social media posts into the spotlight of entertainment news. Mayweather revealed to the public Jackson’s terminated pregnancy in January 2014. Later when Jackson appeared at a basketball game with rapper Nelly and posted various social media posts, Mayweather threatened to post nude photos of Jackson if she didn’t remove them. Having rejected the demand, the boxer posted on Facebook and Instagram, “the real reason me and Shantel Christine Jackson @MissJackson broke up was because she got an abortion, and I’m totally against killing babies. She killed our twin babies. #ShantelJackson #FloyedMayweather #TheMoneyTeam #TMT.” 

This was followed by a posted sonogram of the twin fetuses. TMZ republished the story and the boxer even went on the radio discussing the topic and adding comments about Jackson’s cosmetic surgery.

California appellant Justice Dennis Perluss scrutinized the purpose of California’s anti-SLAPP statute in his opinion, determining whether Jackson’s claims against the boxer arise form matter an public interest, a form of protected activity. This case also then becomes a reflection on the idea of what it means to be a celebrity and how in a culture where everyone is obsessed with celebrities puts them in a position where their publication of sensitive information differ from that of an ordinary citizen.

Purluss further clarifies that the discussion is not focused on whether statements about “killing babies” become part of the public debate on women’s reproductive rights The status of both Jackson and Mayweather makes them high profile individuals and any publication by either party should be reduced to “celebrity gossip’ properly considered, under established case law, as statements in connection with an issue of public interest”

With this regard, the courts favored with the boxer. However, on other claims, there is another form of evaluation.

In Jackson’s submission she also included claims under privacy law focusing on the fact that the boxer’s publications were public disclosure of private facts. On this point, Perless analyzed the exception for newsworthiness which a balancing test between the public’s right to know of sensitive information versus a morbid and sensational prying into a person’s private life.

In the discussion, it was surmised that On the one hand, “Jackson’s pregnancy, the subsequent termination of that pregnancy — whether by abortion (which she has neither admitted nor denied) or otherwise — and her use of cosmetic surgery to enhance her appearance would, under many circumstances, be considered intensely private information; and its unwanted disclosure might well be offensive to a reasonable person.” However, on the other hand, “at a time when entertainment news and celebrity gossip often seem to matter more than serious policy discussions, given Jackson’s high profile and voluntary disclosure on social media of many aspects of her personal life, the publication of those otherwise intimate facts must necessarily be considered newsworthy under the broad definition of that term developed and applied by the Supreme Court and courts of appeal.”

Thus, the fact that both Jackson and Mayweather’s “celebrity status” alters their rights over the publication of their personal life as being “newsworthy” is an important note.

On the issue of the publication of the images of the fetus, Purluss was of the opinion that the image was no different from scandalous events of other previous cases. Rejecting Mayweather’s comment that the images were protected under First Amendment publication of lawfully acquired, truthful information.

As such, although Mayweather was successful in defending against claims of defamation and false light over the publicized statements, he was not so successful in terms of the sonogram photo. “Mayweather’s posting of the sonogram of the twins Jackson had been carrying before her pregnancy terminated and the summary medical report regarding her pregnancy falls outside the protection accorded a newsworthy report.” Purluss found that publishing the picture served “no legitimate public purpose, even when one includes entertainment news within the zone of protection.” The judge compared this to a previous case with which an unauthorized internet photo of a decapitated accident victim was found to be an invasion of privacy under the common law where a decedent has a right in the death images.

Thus, Jackson made a prima facie case involving a “morbid and sensational” prying into her private life

Finally, with regards to the comments on Jackson’s cosmetic surgery, Purluss discusses “minor inaccuracies.” Since Jackson presented no evidence opposing Mayweather’s motion, the radio comments concerning cosmetic surgery do not support a defamation cause of action.

As a final note, it is important to understand that once a person becomes a person in the public light their rights over what is said and publicized about them shift. In a world where trending topics and social media posts become a daily routine, it is worthy to take caution and care on what matters are shared. It is arguable that maybe if Jackson had a weaker presence on social media the case may have been examined under a different light.

Credit: Jessica Wong


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