As any viewer of The Apprentice knows, Donald Trump likes to be the one to say “you’re fired.” However, Miss Pennsylvania, Sheena Monnin, recently “fired” Trump and his Miss Universe Organization.
Monnin gave up her crown after alleging that the results of the May 30, 2012 Miss USA Pageant were rigged, and were even known by certain contestants before they were announced on live television.
Monnin claims that the Donald is as morally bankrupt as many of his companies are financially bankrupt. On June 6, 2012, Monnin posted this highly restrained “letter of resignation” on her Facebook page:
I have decided to resign my position as Miss Pennsylvania USA 2012. Effective immediately I have voluntarily, completely, and utterly removed myself from the Miss Universe Organization.
In good conscience I can no longer be affiliated in any way with an organization I consider to be fraudulent, lacking in morals, inconsistent, and in many ways trashy. I do not support this system in any way. In my heart I believe in honesty, fair play, a fair opportunity, and high moral integrity, none of which in my opinion are part of this pageant system any longer.
Thank you all for your support and understanding as I walk a road I never dreamed I’d need to walk, as I take a stand I never dreamed I’d need to take.
After 10 years of competing in a pageant system I once believed in, I now completely and irrevocably separate myself in every way and on every level from the Miss Universe Organization. I remove my support completely and have turned in the title of Miss Pennsylvania USA 2012.
Although the post has since been removed, the accusations didn’t go over well with Trump, who has a history of reminding the public about his honesty and search for the truth. (When he teased making a presidential run in 2000, he humbly noted: “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.” More recently, Trump responded to President Obama’s definitive refutation of Trump’s “Birther” claims by proudly taking credit for getting to the truth of Obama’s birth certificate.)
Needless to say, Trump and the Miss Universe Organization did not take Monnin’s allegations of dishonestly lightly, promptly serving her with a legal arbitration action for defamation. Essentially, they maintain Monnin is a “loser” whose whine is caused by a case of “sour grapes.” While Sheena may be guilty of missed congeniality, has she actually Trumped up false and defamatory accusations?
When Is “Defamation” Not Defamation?
Generally speaking, defamation is the issuance of a false statement about another person, which causes that person to suffer damage. The most important defense to an action for defamation is “truth,” which is an absolute defense to an action for defamation — with some exceptions related to privacy/confidentiality issues, you can usually say the worst thing in the world about anybody as long as it’s actually true.
As our regular readers should know, most jurisdictions also protect statements that are issued as “opinion” rather than fact — which is why one of our bloggers has proudly announced that, in his opinion, Twitter sucks, but Twitter can’t sue him for defamation for saying so. Whether a statement is viewed as an expression of fact or opinion can depend upon whether or not the person making the statement would be perceived by the public as being in a position to know whether or not it is true. So of course, simply qualifying a statement of fact with the words “in my opinion” does not necessarily make it so — in other words, falsely accusing someone of being a bank-robbing dendrophiliac doesn’t become okay just because you say that, in your opinion, they are a bank-robbing dendrophiliac.
Many jurisdictions also recognize a similar defense that is fair to comment on a matter of “public interest.”
Finally, if the person bringing an action for defamation is a public figure, they must not only prove that the alleged defamatory statement is untrue, but that the person who made the statement acted with “actual malice” — that ever-confusing legal phrase which sounds like the name of a Jean Claude Van Damme movie from the early ‘90s but actually just means that the speaker knew the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.
What Does It Mean for Miss Universe?
While the Miss Universe Organization claims they have fully investigated Monnin’s claims and confirmed they are false, Monnin and her supporters say she is protected on numerous counts.
First, they say that Monnin’s statements are true. In particular, Monnin points to a statement by her fellow contestant, Miss Florida, who allegedly claimed that she saw a handwritten list with the top five contestants before those individuals were announced, and that the individuals who ultimately held those top spots matched the list. Unfortunately for Monnin, Miss Florida — who is evidently not looking to give up her crown — made a statement to E! News to say she was joking: “I want to make a statement, very firm and very clearly, that I did not at any time tell Miss Pennsylvania USA or other Miss USA contestants that I knew the final five contestants in the pageant….” (She did admit that she saw “a piece of paper with names on it, and like most people in such frenetic circumstances, joked that they must be the names of the final contestants. It was a throwaway comment, in the stress of the pageant, and was never meant as a fact. The list I saw didn’t even have the eventual winner on it.”) Monnin supporters say Miss Florida is backtracking simply to avoid the Wrath of Trump. Now, a second “anonymous” Miss USA contestant has just come forward to say that she observed the same behavior by Miss Florida as recounted by Monnin. For now, the truth of Monnin’s accusations sounds like an open question.
Monnin is also likely to argue that her statements are her own opinion and/or are protected statements about a matter of public interest. The first argument is less likely to fly — “in my opinion, you are not a good person” may be an onion, but “in my opinion, you lied and cheated about this specific thing” sounds more like a statement masked with a perfunctory “in my opinion.” The second argument might have more traction, though: the 2012 Miss USA Pageant attracted an estimated 6.2 million viewers, proving once again that (1) I have no idea what constitutes good, watchable television to most of the viewing public, and (2) the philosophical debate over whether “public interest” should mean “what the public is interested in” or “what is in the interest of the public” rages on.
Finally, Monnin will undoubtedly assert that the Miss USA Organization is a “public figure” which, in order to prevail against her, must prove that she acted with “actual malice.” Under this analysis, even if Monnin’s “source” in Miss Florida was mistaken, kidding, or just unreliable, if Monnin genuinely believed her, she would be insulated from liability.
Monnin may also try to fight against any allegations of malice by highlighting her strong religious background. However, Pageant Officials say that it was Monnin’s attempts to backpedal from her religious positions that motivated her to lie — specifically, they say when Monnin originally resigned, it had nothing to do with allegations that the event was rigged and everything to do with the fact that the Organization had recently made a decision to allow transgender women to compete in its pageants. The Organization has released an e-mail, which it says is from Monnin, which says she refuses to be “part of a pageant system that has so far and so completely removed itself from its foundational principles as to allow and support natural born males to compete in it,” arguing that it shows Monnin only came up with the excuse that the pageant results were “rigged” to cover up her real (and politically incorrect) motivation for resigning.
(For those of you wondering why Gloria Allred hasn’t already gotten on her batphone to represent Monnin, perhaps it has to do with the fact that she already represented the transgender contestant against whom Monnin protested.)
(Is it just me, or does transgender contestant Jenna Talackova look a little bit like the Donald’s daughter, Ivanka Trump?)
These allegations cast some doubt on whether Monnin’s (supposed) belief in Miss Florida’s (possibly joking) accusations are as honestly-held as she claims.
Until all of the facts are combed over as carefully as the hair on Trump’s head, it is difficult to predict whether the facts will ultimately shake out in favor of Monnin or the Miss Universe Organization. In the end, it may come down to the talent competition round between the lawyers for both sides. Until then, we’re sure Trump will pay little attention to the media firestorm surrounding this controversy, confident in the fact that his Organization treats the women who compete in its pageants with dignity and integrity. We would expect nothing less from the man who is widely quoted as sagely advising: “You know, it really doesn’t matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”