A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Utah Jazz fans in state court in Utah against the Utah Jazz and NBA star Russell Westbrook, which alleged that the Jazz and Westbrook defamed the plaintiffs when they publicly branded them racists, after the plaintiffs directed insensitive remarks against Westbrook during a game.
In so ruling the court found that plaintiffs Shane Keisel and Jennifer Huff were never identified by name and that the term “racist” is not an actionable word.
The incident in question occurred on March 11, 2019 in a game in Salt Lake City at Vivint Arena in a game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team Westbrook played for. In the aftermath, the Jazz organization banned Keisel and Huff from attending future events at the arena, issuing the following statement:
“The Utah Jazz and Larry H. Miller Group announced today a permanent ban of the fan who engaged in the inappropriate interaction with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook last night at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The ban is effective immediately and includes all arena events.
“The organization conducted an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts. The ban is based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player during the game that violated the NBA Code of Conduct.”
In comments to reporters after the incident, Westbrook described the plaintiffs’ speech as racially motivated. Then-Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller said “This should never happen. We are not a racist community. We have a code of conduct in this arena. It will be strictly enforced.”
The plaintiffs then filed the lawsuit in the 4th District Court in Utah County, alleging that Westbrook’s postgame comments as well as a subsequent Utah Jazz press release and comments by Miller were defamatory and caused intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress to the plaintiffs.
In response to the lawsuit, Jazz Senior Vice President of Communications Frank Zang responded to the lawsuit with the following statement: “We believe there is no legal or factual basis for these claims against the Utah Jazz. The organization investigated the underlying incident and acted in an appropriate and responsible manner. We intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”
The defendants moved for summary judgement on the claim. The court heard oral arguments in the case on April 5.
In granting a summary judgment to Westbrook and the Jazz, the court ruled that being called a “racist” is a matter of opinion and cannot be factually proven true or false. Thus, statements made by Westbrook and the Jazz were constitutionally protected by the opinion privilege.
“The Court’s conclusion today — that calling a person racist or attributing racist statements to him is not actionable in defamation — serves important policies underlying the First Amendment,” it wrote. “It is only in the free expression of these ideas the nation can hope to heal the historic wounds of slavery and racial injustice that fester still today. That healing cannot occur if public dialogue about racism is silenced under threat of defamation liability.”
Another factor in the decision was the fact that Westbrook never identified Keisel or Huff, so “the statement is not actionable in defamation.”