In mid-December 2012, a beauty queen who claimed on Facebook that 2012’s Miss USA contest was fixed was ordered by an arbitrator to pay the pageant organization $5 million for defamation.
The arbitrator ruled the comments on Facebook and NBC’s “Today” from Sheena Monnin, Miss Pennsylvania USA, were false, harmful and malicious, and led to the loss of a sponsor for the organization’s 2013 pageant worth $5 million. Monnin had claimed the five finalists had been chosen before the pageant’s live telecast.
The common law defamation elements require the plaintiff to show (1) the defendant’s defamatory language, (2) of or concerning the plaintiff, (3) is published to a third party who understands its defamatory nature, and (4) damages the plaintiff’s reputation.
According to NewsChannel5.com, Theodore Katz, the arbitrator, stated Monnin had two motives: “She was a disgruntled contestant who failed to make it past the preliminary competition” and she rejected the pageant’s decision to have transgender contestants. The arbitrator wrote the way the contest is judged “precludes any reasonable possibility that the judging was rigged.”
Language that diminishes respect, esteem, or goodwill toward a plaintiff, or deters others from associating with a plaintiff, is defamatory. An opinion is actionable if the defendant implies a factual basis for that opinion.
Monnin made her comments orally and in writing. In a slander action, special damages must be proven, unless a defamatory statement is slander per se, relating to (1) abilities in a profession, business, or trade, (2) a loathsome disease, (3) a woman’s unchaste behavior, or (4) guilt in a crime of moral turpitude. There are no requirements to prove special damages, and special damages are presumed when defamation involves libel (written statements). Special damages are awarded for economic loss due to defamation. Radio programs are treated as libels if sufficiently permanent, premeditated, and broadly disseminated.
The contestant, from Cranberry, PA, resigned her state title when the Miss USA pageant was over. Monnin consented to arbitration on any disputes when she became a Miss USA contestant. However, the arbitrator wrote in his decision that Monnin and her lawyer did not participate in proceedings. Monnin and her lawyer claimed they were not required to participate.
Under common law, defamatory statements are presumed false, and the defendant must assert truth as a defense. Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, plaintiff must prove fault on the part of the defendant for matters of public concern.
The person who won the Miss USA pageant, twenty-year-old Olivia Culpo, went on to win the Miss Universe pageant. She is a Boston University sophomore and represented Rhode Island in the Miss USA pageant. An American had not won the Miss Universe pageant since 1997. She beat 88 competitors.
With Culpo becoming Miss Universe, Miss Maryland Nana Meriwether becomes the new Miss USA.