Lawsuit by anti-Islam video actress could have major implications for YouTube

September 24, 2012

You SuedEarlier this month, anti-American furor swept across the Middle East in response to the online release of a video insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

These protests resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.

Although he apparently initially denied involvement, California man Nakoula Basseley Nakoula seems to be responsible for the video’s creation and release.

But there were actors and actresses also involved with the film – what about their responsibility?

According to a lawsuit filed last Wednesday, at least one actress claims that she had no idea that an anti-Islam film was being produced.

The lawsuit’s plaintiff, Cindy Lee Garcia, claims that she was misled about the film’s true nature, and that she was under the impression at the time of filming that it was to be an “historical Arabian Desert adventure film” entitled “Desert Warrior.”

Garcia further alleges that her acting work “has been changed grotesquely” to make it appear that she “voluntarily performed in a hateful anti-Islamic production.”

Apparently, her voice was dubbed over in English and Arabic (and not very well, if you’ve seen the video) to make it appear as though she were stating unflattering things about the Prophet Mohammad.

In other words, Nakoula used “her image as a virtual ‘puppet’” for his “bigoted views” which Garcia “does not share and rejects.”

Because of this, Garcia has received death threats – which, considering the level of violence that the film has sparked around the world, seem quite credible.

Perhaps worse, because of these threats, Garcia is no longer allowed to see her grandchildren, “whom she previously babysat regularly.”

Garcia’s complaint lists eight causes of action, including fraud, slander, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

If Garcia’s allegations are true, which seems to be the case in light of how heavily (and poorly) edited the video seems, most if not all of her claims against Nakoula should be successful.

However, Garcia is also suing YouTube and its parent company Google for failing to remove the video once its content became known, and this presents a novel legal question:

 Can online providers be held liable for failing to remove defamatory or otherwise tortious materials after they receive notice of such?

According to the complaint, Garcia requested that YouTube pull the video, but it was denied.

However, since Google rejected a similar request from the White House itself, it seems that anything short of a court mandate will likely fail to secure its removal.

Why is Google so adamant about keeping the video up?

Is it worried about civil liability?

Only if its legal department is completely incompetent, since there are explicit federal laws in place that insulate a computer service provider such as Google or YouTube from all legal liability potentially stemming from its removal of content that it deems “objectionable” in any way.

Instead, Google’s motivations are likely based on one or both of the following:

  1. Google does not want to block material that generates massive amounts of traffic.
  2. As a matter of principle, Google will only censor content that it is legally forced to.

Unlike with copyright infringement, there’s no federal law (i.e. the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) providing an extensive framework that mandates the removal of infringing material in this case.

Furthermore, there isn’t even any apposite case law dealing with the legal implications of failing to remove tortious content (unrelated to copyright).

And so, since this case looks like the first to deal with that issue, it could potentially turn into a landmark ruling (assuming, of course, that the case isn’t settled).

Because of these significant potential legal implications, the case is certainly worth watching.