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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Real Housewives Get Real

Ever since the Star Wars Kid video went viral and he sued his classmates for intentional infliction of emotional distress, I’ve wondered whether tort law could support a cause of action for increasing the visibility of non-private information.  The issue raised itself again with the commencement of the second season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the Bravo reality show.

If you’re not familiar, the Real Housewives series tracks a hand-selected group of women, many of whom live at the upper end of the income scale (although recently bankruptcies have hit some).  The series is fair game for trivialization—certainly, the $60,000 Mad Hatter birthday party thrown by Beverly Hills housewife Taylor Armstrong for her 4-year-old wasn’t exactly hard news.  Yet even reality shows can’t seem to escape reality.  

A few weeks ago, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills got very real when Taylor’s husband Russell was found dead, which the coroner determined was a suicide.  Based on the previews, it appeared that the upcoming season would feature Taylor and Russell’s financial and marital problems as a significant story line.  I’m assuming that their problems were not private, there seems to be no end to the coverage overturning every possible detail. 

The season began on schedule.  Suddenly, a show about pumped up kicks and private jets turned into something completely different.  Russell’s mother had threatened to sue Bravo if they air a single frame featuring him this season.  A recent discussion in The New York Times observed that, “Bravo’s determination to slither past suicide and accountability was, well, chilling.”  For the moment, I’m going to leave aside questions of taste. Although no case has yet been filed, it seems far from clear that a standard application of the law could intervene between Bravo’s magnifying glass and the Armstrongs.  For an interesting treatment that touches on notions of privacy in a modern era, Danielle Keats Citron’s Mainstreaming Privacy Torts offers several useful insights. 


Posted by Amy Landers on September 13, 2011 at 12:44 AM in Torts | Permalink


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There is an exception to privacy where the person is a public figure or celebrity. Doesn't that apply in the case of a reality tv show celebrity? When a person voluntarily appears before cameras in this manner, it seems to me that you've waived at least an objection to appearing on television at all.

That said, I feel for the family and agree that out of respect for them the film shouldn't be aired. Not only would it be disrespectful, it would be rather sick to exploit a tragedy that way.

Posted by: Dana Altman, Esq. | Sep 15, 2011 2:35:28 AM

I suspect that contracts, not torts, will resolve this issue. Also, the public disclosure of private facts tort does not normally survive the death of the person whose privacy is invaded.

Posted by: Lyrissa | Sep 15, 2011 12:03:31 AM

In the suit, filed in federal court in California, Reneta Bonar claims she and many other people have been duped by Beam Global Spirits for making "deceptive statements" on the label of Skinnygirl.

Posted by: rhi | Sep 13, 2011 2:20:52 AM

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