There is an interesting defamation case out of Idaho in which Rebecca Scofield, an associate professor and the chair of the history department at the University of Idaho, is suing TikTok personality Ashley Guillard for defamation. Guillard continues to maintain that Scofield ordered the murders after a falling out with one of the victims from a romantic relationship. Scofield denies ever meeting any of the victims, let alone having an affair with one of them.
Guillard is a Texas-based social media commentator, and accused Scofield of arranging the murder of Xana Kernodle, her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, and Kernodle’s roommates Maddie Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves in their Moscow (Idaho) house on Nov. 13. In one video, Guillard said that Scofield conspired with an anonymous University of Idaho student, identified only as J.D., to murder the students.
The complaint states that Scofield was in Oregon with her husband visiting friends when the murders occurred.
The filing describes Guillard as “a purported internet sleuth” who “decided to use the community’s pain for her online self-promotion.” It further described how Guillard “promotes herself on Amazon and TikTok as an Internet sleuth that solves high-profile unsolved murders by consulting Tarot cards, and performing other readings, to obtain information about the murders.”
The case makes out a clearly viable defamation claim. The postings of these videotapes accuse the professor of murdering four students and have caused considerable damage to her reputation.
What is interesting is that Guillard is not apparently focusing on a defense that this was mere opinion. Rather she is relying on the classic defense of “truth.” Truth is always a defense to defamation since a published fact must be false as well as harmful.
In many of these high-profile cases, counsel attempts to portray the representations as opinion. That was the case with the litigation over the false claims made against former Rep. Gary Condit by the late Dominick Dunne.
The First Amendment limits the scope of defamation in some cases. As one court noted, “‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ ‘vigorous epithet[s],’ ‘lusty and imaginative expressions[s] of . . . contempt,’ and language used ‘in a loose, figurative sense’ have all been accorded constitutional protection.” Ferlauto v. Hamsher 74 Cal.App.4th 1394, 1401 (1999)
Moreover, what constitutes an opinion as opposed to a factual claim is generally left to a jury: “some statements are ambiguous and cannot be characterized as factual or nonfactual as a matter of law. ‘In these circumstances, it is for the jury to determine whether an ordinary reader would have understood the article as a factual assertion…’” Kahn v. Bower, 232 Cal.App.3d 1599, 1608 (1991).
In Wilkow v. Forbes, Inc., 241 F.3d 552 (7th Cir. 2001), opinion prevailed as a defense. In that case, a journalist with Forbes was sued for harsh characterizations of a lawyer and his practice. Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that “although the article drips with disapproval of Wilkow’s (and the judges’) conduct, an author’s opinion about business ethics isn’t defamatory under Illinois law.”
Like Dunne, however, Guillard was making very specific claims as well as suggesting that she had “solved” the case with her own sleuthing of publicly available evidence. It went beyond mere opinion.
The Complaint notes that Guillard was warned not just by counsel for Scofield but others about the clearly defamatory character of her published remarks: “Many TikTok users warned Guillard that her statements were false and that she was defaming Professor Scofield, among others.”
Guillard not only persisted but seemed to double down. She continued to insist that she will prove that Scofield killed the students and even expressed joy at being sued:
“I am actually gleaming with excitement . . . People just don’t get it, like I’ve been against people big and small, corporations and giants and systemic policies [and] racism and won. They all regret coming against me. All of them…Now Rebecca is going to be added to that list of regretful people.”
It remains a mystery why Guillard picked out Professor Scofield for this vile public accusation. There is no evidence that appears to link the professor to any of the students or the murders.
While Guillard may prove effectively “judgment proof” (I am not sure what a TikTok star makes from such notoriety), the lawsuit is well based and unlikely to be dismissed by the court.
Here is the complaint: Scofield v. Guillard.