Queen’s Gambit loses bid for checkmate libel suit

A federal district court in California recently ruled that Nona Gaprindashvili’s lawsuit against Netflix could proceed to the discovery stage. Netflix had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit from the outset. But the court found that his argument – that he couldn’t be held responsible for a line in a fictional series – didn’t cut it.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” – a fictional depiction of a woman of modest means who rises to the top echelon of the world of competitive chess – has defamed her. The defamation came in voiceover in the final episode, when the narrator described the rise of the fictional hero, Beth Harmon. The voiceover says:

“[The male players believe] Harmon’s level of play was not up to theirs. Someone like Laev probably didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for his match. Elizabeth Harmon is not a major player at all by their standards. The only thing unusual about her, really, is her gender. And even that is not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the women’s world champion and she’s never faced a man. I guess Laev was expecting an easy win, and not at all the 27 shots Beth Harmon just gave him.

The series was based on a novel of the same name. And in the novel, the passage reads a little differently:

“From what they knew, [Harmon’s] the level of play was about that of Benny Watts, and men like Laev wouldn’t spend much time preparing to play Benny. She was not an important player by their standards; the only thing unusual about her was her sex; and even that was not unique to Russia. There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not at the level of this tournament, but a player who had met all these great Russian masters many times before. Laev would expect an easy win.

The voiceover spoke of an event in 1968. And as early as that year, Ms. Gaprindashvili had indeed faced and defeated men. She claimed the line tarnished her reputation by suggesting her skills were deficient. She also claimed that Netflix acted with real malice because it knew the line was false under the text of the book.

Neflix argued that the line, spoken in a work of fiction, was not intended to be understood as fact. He pointed out the disclaimer he employed saying the series was a work of fiction. The court remained indifferent. He found that the disclaimer had little impact when the show made the decision to refer to a real person and stated an objectively false fact. It really didn’t help that the novel used as the source for the series directly contradicted the line. All of this was enough for the court to dismiss Netflix’s motion to dismiss.

Cases of “defamation in fiction” are rare, but they occur more frequently than one might think. If a TV series wants to be “snatched from the headlines,” it needs to know it’s in danger. There are two solutions it seems to me. Either all fictitious and don’t refer to real people or – and this seems like the common sense solution – GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT.

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