Jesse “The Body” Ventura vs. Chris Kyle: When Winning is Really Losing
By Ken K. Gourdin
This comes with the usual caveats. It is one man’s opinion only. I am not a lawyer, and this commentary is not intended as legal advice. A reader should not attempt to apply the analysis given herein to his own legal situation. If you need legal advice, call an attorney. Now, with that out of the way . . .
If I felt to do so, I certainly would congratulate former Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura for prevailing in his defamation suit against the estate of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. However, any such congratulations would have to be greatly tempered.
If my opinion of Governor Ventura were based primarily on his fringe opinions, I would adopt a live-and-let-live, agree-to-disagree, if-two-people-are-of-exactly-the-same-opinion-on-absolutely-everything-one-of-them-is-unnecessary approach to him.
People are entitled to be wrong; they are entitled to be crazy; they’re even entitled to be wrong and crazy at the same time. I’ll leave it to my reader to decide for himself which of those descriptors, if any, (or which combination of them) applies to Governor Ventura.
In order to recover damages for defamation against a public figure, a plaintiff is required to prove “actual malice.” While “malice” in the usual sense means ill will, its meaning in this context is different. In the defamation context, the U.S. Supreme Court has defined “actual malice” as “Reckless disregard for whether the [allegedly defamatory] statement is true or false.” Findlaw has helpful background information on defamation. See here, last accessed today: http://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/defamation-law-the-basics.html.
Jesse Ventura certainly qualifies as a public figure. He has been involved in the sports and entertainment industries for decades. He hosted his own television show. (It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could defame him when his own affinity for fringe theories seems to have done more damage to his credibility than the defendant in his defamation case ever could have done.) He has been elected to at least two public offices. He has written several books. Whether he seeks out publicity or it seeks him out, he certainly seems willing to talk to anyone who has a microphone and is accompanied by a cameraman, or to anyone who has a notebook, a pen, and/or an audio recorder.
While I have neither followed the case closely nor have I researched the issue of actual malice exhaustively, it’s difficult for me to understand how a jury could have found actual malice. I would not be surprised if its verdict were overturned on appeal. Whatever happens, I think Governor Ventura has further marginalized himself (if that’s possible); and he may have won this defamation battle, but he seems sure to lose the public relations war. I think The Washington Post’s analysis is spot-on (last accessed today):