Joyce McKinney, a onetime Wyoming beauty queen who once captured screaming headlines in British tabloids over a sordid sex case, recently became a legal footnote, as a California appellate court tossed out much of her lingering lawsuit against noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Elizabeth Grimes, a state appellate judge, found that Morris’ documentary about McKinney, was a work protected by First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The court also noted that the film’s topic, indeed, was newsworthy – one of public interest – and that McKinney was a limited-purpose public figure who voluntarily involved herself into the story when she agreed to be part of the documentary. McKinney’s suit had its roots in a tawdry tale that blew up more than three decades ago, when the British tabloids launched into a frenzy over claims that she had a role in abducting and sexually abusing what she claimed was her fiance — he a Mormon missionary, who told police she had chained him to a bed in a country cottage and forced him into sex. The former Miss Wyoming swore that the tabloids made up the entire tale, dubbed by some, the “manacled Mormon” case. More than three decades later, she attempted to clear her name.
In 2008, McKinney was approached by Morris, an Oscar-winning American filmmaker, to see if she wanted to be interviewed about the tabloid press. McKinney agreed. His 2010 documentary would be appropriately titled, Tabloid.
To McKinney’s dismay, Tabloid focused on her and the tabs that splashed her on their pages during the earlier scandal. In 2011, McKinney sued Morris in Los Angeles Superior Court, asserting she was defrauded about the nature of the documentary, was coerced into signing a release agreement and that the film reported false information about her, and, thus, was defamatory.
At trial, Morris, along with the other defendants, filed a motion to strike six of eleven causes of actions in McKinney’s complaint. The trial court granted the motion, but McKinney appealed.
Besides its other findings, the appellate court also shut down McKinney’s argument that her story was a matter of public concern 30 years ago in Britain – not in present-day America. The court said Morris was entitled to creative license and that the overall theme of Tabloid was journalism, not an attack on her private life; whether what Morris’ film depicted was true or false, the court said, was irrelevant.
While the appellate court found that she failed to show a likelihood of her prevailing on most of her claims, McKinney was allowed to pursue her claims that Morris misrepresented his documentary to her and caused her emotional distress.